Low expectations lead to under-performance in mathematics education

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Friday, 13 Aug 2010

For immediate release Friday 13 August 2010

Low expectations lead to under-performance in mathematics education

Low expectations are contributing to the under-performance of Australian students in school mathematics according to the chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Professor Geoff Masters.

In his opening address to this year’s ACER Research Conference, ‘Teaching Mathematics? Make it Count’, in Melbourne on Monday, Professor Masters will tell almost 800 delegates that school mathematics is widely perceived as difficult, obscure and of limited relevance to many students.

“There appears to be a belief that only a small percentage of students can excel in mathematics,” Professor Masters said speaking ahead of the conference.

“But this is not the view of countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei where more than 40 per cent of students achieve levels of excellence achieved by fewer than 10 per cent of students in Australia.

“Aspirations for mathematics learning in Australian schools sometimes are limited to the completion of class work targeted on the needs of the middle of the grade. In these classes, rather than being challenged and extended, more able students may be given ‘free time’ once they have completed set work.”

Professor Masters will argue that low expectations for mathematics learning also can be ‘institutionalised’ through courses and curricula for lower-achieving students.

“Although the intentions – to provide more appropriate mathematics learning experiences – are admirable, these courses often protect students from intellectual challenge and rigour. By exposing participants only to low-level mathematics learning, such courses impose a ceiling on what individuals are able to learn,” Professor Masters said.

He will argue that, of even more concern, is the lowering of expectations for particular groups of students, including Indigenous students and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and call for vigilance to ensure that we do not inadvertently lower the bar for these groups.

“For example, the My School website can invite the conclusion that students in a school are performing as well as expected given their socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the observed relationship between mathematics achievement and socioeconomic background is not a reason to expect less of some students,” Professor Masters said.

“Given the enormous variability in students’ levels of mathematics proficiency in any given year of school, student success in mathematics is best measured not in terms of the mastery of grade-based curricula, but in terms of the progress that individuals make. Excellent progress in mathematics should be an expectation of every student in the course of a school year, regardless of their starting point.”



Media enquiries:

Louise Reynolds, ACER Corporate Communications
Phone: (03) 9277 5582 or 0419 340 058
ACER Research Conference website http://www.acer.edu.au/conference