May 23, 2024

New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (Inc)
Media Release, 23 May 2024

In response to increasing concern about New Zealand school students falling behind expectations and international peers, the government has proposed significant changes to the curriculum. The revised curriculum is expected to indicate specifically what students are expected to learn and when. A key benefit is that this will remove the burden on teachers of having to plan students’ learning over a number of years, especially for cumulative subjects like mathematics.

But is this approach enough to turn around years of falling maths and science achievement?

Our analysis of anonymised, linked data on people who gained their first employment contract as primary teachers between 2017 and 2022 shows that a tighter curriculum is not likely to be enough to overcome new teachers’ own poor track records of engagement and achievement in maths and science.

The analysis reveals that while primary trained teachers are skilled professionals, many do not have the required expertise in mathematics and science to effectively design and deliver quality learning experiences that ensure children are adequately prepared for secondary level learning. Specifically, a quarter of the recent cohort of primary teachers failed NCEA Level 1 maths and more than half failed Level 1 Science. Many choose not to pursue Maths and Science beyond Level 1, but those who do are more likely to fail than pass.

This is a problem because it shows that many primary school teachers’ own understanding of maths and science may be below (potentially well below) the level expected in Year 11, while they are expected to support learners and create quality learning experiences for children up to Year 8, including those who are capable of learning well beyond their school year level.

While teacher training programmes offer some refresher courses to strengthen trainee teachers’ knowledge of key curriculum areas, this minimal approach is more suited to those who have forgotten content rather than those who never mastered it even to a basic level in the first place.

NZIER recommends that initiatives to improve the delivery of pre-secondary mathematics and science curricula should be based on a realistic assessment of the skills of primary trained teachers. Primary teachers are hard-working professionals with specialist expertise in some areas, but this should not be assumed to include maths and science. This means the government’s work to tighten the curriculum is a step in the right direction, but it should also:

  • introduce standardised tools like lesson plans to support teachers in delivering the maths and science curriculum
  • invest in the development of specialist maths and science roles specifically for primary schools to provide specialist expertise to both teachers and students
  • implement gatekeeper and standardised referral requirements such as those used in the health sector to optimise the balance of generalist and specialist workforce.

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Hogan
Deputy Chief Executive (Wellington) & Principal Economist
021 145 6159 

Read the Insight here