Nobel winner says maths counts
Mathematics teachers need to be better trained, better teachers, and better paid, according to Australia's newest Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt.
The Australian National University astronomer, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, will speak at a national forum to address Australia's maths crisis starting today in Canberra.
The forum has attracted international experts on education policy and comes ahead of Chief Scientist Ian Chubb presenting his blueprint for maths and science education reform next month to government.
Professor Schmidt said it was dangerous for Australia to undervalue maths as it provided ''the foundation for most skilled professions, whether you are a builder, an astronomer or an economist.''
Sound maths knowledge was also required for every day skills such as ''balancing your cheque book or interpreting facts and figures in the media''.
Professor Schmidt said it was unclear as to why maths and science learning were in decline in Australia, but it would soon lead to shortages across a range of professions, from engineers and scientists, to public policy workers lacking numerical literacy.
Professor Schmidt said while momentum was building nationally to place the maths and science decline firmly on the political agenda, change would take decades to filter through.
The government recently axed Higher Education Contribution Scheme discounts for maths and science undergraduates as it had failed to boost student numbers.
Professor Schmidt said countries with high-performing maths sectors - many in Asia - provided lessons Australia could follow.
''In Singapore for example, they put a lot of effort and a lot of money into maths teaching. The teachers at secondary level are very well educated and well paid and it is actually very competitive to get a position in a school,'' he said.
'' With that competitiveness comes status in the profession.''
While teaching undergraduates have some of the lowest university entrance cut-offs of any degree, Professor Schmidt did not think raising cut-offs was a way to go in raising the status of the profession.
''Entrance ranks are a pretty blunt instrument to use, I would be suggesting we focus more closely on making sure those graduating teachers meet higher standards of maths and science knowledge and skill before they enter the classroom.''
''In the end I believe it comes down to education, education, education. The earliest years of school are the easiest place to start. Let's ensure our primary school teachers are educated and comfortable in the curriculum, and let's follow it on at the secondary level with teachers well qualified in maths and also trained in teaching techniques.''
A crucial policy reform would be to significantly boost the salaries of maths and science teachers.
''This is going to require investment. The simple fact is we have to pay our maths and science teachers more because at the moment they will earn more money in the public or private sector,'' Professor Schmidt warned.
The director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, Professor Geoff Prince, said the forum would bring ''a range of solutions to the maths skills shortage, and I believe that there is now a widespread willingness for action''.
He said maths and statistical skills were in high demand across all sectors of the economy and many students are unaware that closing the door on mathematics at school would limit their future career options.