Flip it and we are suddenly confronted with: “mathematical incompetence is disabling”.
This demands the identification of sectors of Australian society at risk.
Straight off, I can tell you that Australia’s female population is at risk, as are Indigenous, low SES, regional and rural communities.
The risk for many of these vulnerable groups is amplified by Australia’s lack of trained maths teachers.
Indeed, as a member of the OECD, Australia is increasingly at risk. Why does this matter?
Because modern economies are increasingly reliant on mathematical competency and the mobility of individuals in the evolving workforce requires it.
And because mathematical competence is vital at a personal level as we make our way in the world, as citizens, parents, employees, tenants and home owners.
To be without mathematical competence is to be at a deepening and serious disadvantage.
The ABS reported in October 2013 that 49 per cent (4.1m) of adult males had attained, at most, numeracy level 2 (of 5) compared to 59.2 per cent (4.9m) of females.
By comparison, the literacy figures were equal within 0.07 per cent. Female numeracy at this level would have to improve by 20 per cent to match that of males.
By any measure this is a significant disadvantage. For the sake of context, tasks in at level 2 “tend to include onestep or two-step processes and estimations involving whole numbers, benchmark percents and fractions, interpreting simple graphical or spatial representations, and performing simple measurements.”
Level 1 tasks consist of “simple, one-step operations such as counting, sorting dates, performing simple arithmetic operations or understanding common and simple per cents, such as 50 per cent.”
Tragically, nearly 22 per cent of Australian adults were at level 1 or below. The latest NAPLAN results show at least 17.4 per cent of Indigenous Year 9 students are below minimum maths standards by Year 9, compared to only 2.1 per cent of their non-Indigenous peers.
This figure jumps to over 50 per cent in remote areas. The difficulties of recruiting and retaining qualified maths teachers in regional and remote Australia are extreme.
This entrenched educational disadvantage limits employment opportunities in increasingly data driven regional economies.
In Australia, around 38 per cent of Years 7 to 10 maths classes are taught by an out-of-field teacher, more than triple the international rate of 12 per cent.
This is the worst of all disciplines. Many schools in regional, remote and low socioeconomic areas have no qualified mathematics teacher.
Informed rumour indicates that the number of secondary schools not offering calculus-based maths at Year 12 numbers in the hundreds, shutting the gate on many career paths.
Only 14 per cent of Australian university science degrees require intermediate level Year 12 mathematics, an historic low, an international embarrassment and a brake on progress.
How did we get into this hole? Some of these issues, such as Indigenous and female mathematics inequity, are rooted in larger and entrenched disadvantage that I am not best qualified to examine.
However, the alarming growth of out-of-field teaching in secondary mathematics, the decline in the provision of intermediate and advanced mathematics at Year 12 and the widespread flight from university mathematics prerequisites arise from the alignment of various dark stars of neglect.
Here are some cases in point: the graduation data provided to the Commonwealth by the universities in general does not distinguish between freshly minted maths teachers and, for example, English teachers.
The state teacher registration boards do not generally record the discipline and pedagogy specialisations of teachers.
The competitive tertiary sector environment means that many universities have, in a race to the bottom, dropped prerequisites in order to fill student places, sending a negative message to schools.
A blame game is destructive, but diagnosis precedes treatment. It is clear to me that lack of leadership, accompanied by a dearth of information, are largely responsible for the absence of an effective policy and program base.
Our COAG Education Council and the Commonwealth Science Council should listen to the disparate voices of Chief Scientists, Ministers of Education, professional bodies, learned academies and industry groups.
They should heed the successes elsewhere in the world. Then they need to demonstrate their own competence with a national agenda for a mathematically equitable future.