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Why early intervention is key in lifting maths outcomes


Why early intervention is key in lifting maths outcomes

Too many Australian students struggle with maths and aren’t identified early enough or accurately enough, according to new research.

The study, by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), found around 400,000 Australian students per year — or 10% of students — require additional support or are below the international benchmark in mathematics. Troublingly, only around 20% of those students who fall behind ever catch up.

The lead researcher, Kelly Norris, says early intervention is possible but requires the support of efficient, informative, accurate, and universal screening of core numeracy skills in Year 1.

Norris labels this a national ‘student catch-up crisis’ because there is not a robust, consistent, and evidence-based educational safety net for children struggling with maths. She says school systems around the country generally carry out inefficient and inadequately targeted approaches when it comes to early assessment of maths skills – an issue that she says leaves too much to chance and leads to needy students falling through the cracks.

“It’s one thing for governments to commit to funding large intervention programs — like small-group tutoring policies — but this is compromised if screening is not efficient, early, and informative,” Norris said.

“Education systems can’t afford to run a ‘wait to fail’ approach before additional support is provided. This makes early and effective screening the best possible way to help the children most in need of support.”

Other key barriers

In May, a study by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) found students’ participation in higher mathematics is at a record low, with Year 12 participation in higher-level mathematics dropping below 10% for the first time ever, to 9.2% (compared to 11.6% in 2008), and participation in intermediate mathematics to 17.6% (compared to 23.3% in 2008).

According to AMSI Director, Professor Tim Marchant, one key barrier is the serious mathematics teacher shortages occurring in Australia, particularly for schools in low SES and regional areas.

“Due to these teacher shortages many students are being taught maths out-of-field. Out-of-field maths teachers are qualified to teach other subjects, but they typically have little or no formal preparation in the teaching of maths,” Dr Marchant told The Educator.

“The data indicates that two in every five maths teachers aren’t maths trained and 75% of Australian Year 7-10 students experience some out-of-field math teaching. This means that large numbers of students are being taught by teachers who may lack the necessary knowledge, skills, and confidence for teaching mathematics.”

In the meantime, for the maths teachers working tirelessly to improve students’ outcomes, experts say focusing on strengths in students’ mathematics work rather than their “weaknesses, shortcomings, and failures” is vital for effective teaching and learning of the subject.

Australian Catholic University researcher Dr Thorsten Scheiner developed a program helping Masters’ students in secondary mathematics shift from focusing on misconceptions to strengths-based language, recognising students’ mathematical thinking as valuable. Participants explored different perspectives and learned the social, cultural, and historical influences on student thinking.

When asked how school leaders can incorporate this concept into their school-wide instructional strategies to better support their mathematics teachers and student outcomes, Dr Scheiner said this requires a collaborative effort from school leaders and teachers.

“Firstly, leaders can promote a culture of positivity and growth by encouraging teachers to identify and leverage their own strengths in mathematics instruction. This can be done through professional development programs focused on strengths-based teaching approaches,” Dr Scheiner told The Educator.

“Furthermore, it’s important for school leaders to provide resources and support materials that align with the strengths-based approach.”

Dr Scheiner said this may include updated curriculum materials, instructional tools, and assessments that emphasize students’ strengths rather than focusing solely on deficits.

“This may also include the use of the coding scheme and spectrum of framings developed from the research that can be instrumental in facilitating the shift from deficit-based to strength-based thinking.”

Looking ahead

The Federal Government says while Australia’s current school system is lacking in providing education to students, nothing effective has been done about it to reframe the way maths is taught in schools.

According to Norris, who draws from the findings of her report ‘Screening that Counts: Why Australia needs universal early numeracy screening’, an important step is for policymakers to adopt a research-validated universal early numeracy screening check in all Australian schools, similar to the Year 1 Phonics Check.

She says this echoes the recommendations made by independent reviews to Australia’s education ministers, including the recent Better and Fairer review informing the next National School Reform Agreements.

“Screening and intervention tools must streamline and target the work of teachers rather than adding to it,” Norris said.

“Aligning assessment, including existing assessments, to a systematic, multi-tiered framework of support is the best way to achieve this.”

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