Monday, November 16, 2009

Stripped of Its Intellectual Content, "Rainforest Math" Has Serious Implications for U.S. Economy

From the article "Who Needs Mathematicians for Math, Anyway?" by Professor Sandra Stotsky in the City Journal:

As part of his education-reform plan, President Obama wants to “make math and science education a top priority” and ensure that children have access to strong math and science curricula “at all grade levels.” But the president’s worthy aims won’t be reached so long as assessment experts, technology salesmen, and math educators—the professors, usually with education degrees, who teach prospective teachers of math from K–12—dominate the development of the content of school curricula and determine the pedagogy used, into which they’ve brought theories lacking any evidence of success and that emphasize political and social ends, not mastery of mathematics.

A new effort is under way to develop national math standards for K–12. The two organizations running the effort—the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with support from both the Department of Education and the National Education Association—have not yet invited a single mathematical or science society to ensure that the high school mathematics standards and “college-readiness” standards they propose in fact prepare American high school students for the freshman calculus courses that serve as the basis for undergraduate majors in engineering, science, and mathematics (as well as other mathematics-dependent majors and technical/occupational programs). The effort, which is being pushed very quickly, seems determined to do an end run around the country’s mathematical and scientific organizations and the panel’s recommendations on the major topics for school algebra.

Baseless pedagogical theories mean that the educators’ long-term captive audience—K–12 teachers, most drawn from the middle academic tier of our high school population and the bottom third of our undergraduate population—will know even less about authentic mathematics than they do now. Alas, so will their students. And even if a new Congress or Secretary of Education were to support the panel’s recommendations, it will be essentially business as usual in the public schools so long as math educators, joined by assessment experts and technology salesmen, continue to shape the curriculum. A form of mathematics stripped of much of its intellectual content has obvious repercussions for higher education and the American economy. The math wars, which started in debates about pedagogy, may end in questions about the long-term prospects for American prosperity.

Exhibit A:
During their first math class at one of CUNY's four-year colleges, 90% of 200 students tested couldn't solve a simple algebra problem, the report by the CUNY Council of Math Chairs found. Only a third could convert a fraction into a decimal.

HT: Arthur Little


At 11/17/2009 12:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently took statics, strengths and materials, and site drafting at a 2 year school here in Cincinnati. About a third of the floor space at the book store dedicated to books was taken up by pre-algebra and basic English grammar books.

It's appalling to think these kids got though high school without understanding basic elementary school level concepts.

All federal government education departments should be dissolved and education returned to the people.

At 11/17/2009 1:42 AM, Blogger KO said...

Public education is the model for what a public option will be for healthcare. Regardless of terrible results, it's defended by the big government types.

For all the dollars sucked up by the public education system, the high school dropout rate is terrible. And schools fail in educating many of those who do graduate.

But they're lucky. The governement is finally helping them out by taking money from successful people and handing it to them.

At 11/17/2009 1:54 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This same theme applies to any major degree when religious and political agendas are promoted by the "staff". It's more difficult to do in pure science and engineering but not impossible. Math skills are severely hurt by computational devices, cell phones, computers etc. There is virtually no mental math taught anymore to verify the results of computational math. Just pass $5.17 to an "employee" when the bill is $4.67 and see what I mean. The toll booth at the next stop requires 2 quarters (hint)

At 11/17/2009 1:54 AM, Blogger juandos said...

"It's appalling to think these kids got though high school without understanding basic elementary school level concepts"...

Sadly its been like this for a couple decades...

Back in '84 and '85 I audited a couple of post grad classes in advanced bonding chemistry and there were students in that room that were asking questions about chemistry they should've learned in high school...

The whole of the University of Missouri St. Louis campus was just one big, money wasting remedial circus...

At 11/17/2009 2:07 AM, Blogger The Chinese Capitalist said...

The problem is that these wonks believe that if only math or whatever subject, could be made interesting, then kids would do well. Unfortunately, if too much effort is made to dress up the subject to make it appealing, not enough effort is made on teaching the actual subject itself.

Some things can't be made interesting. Learning multiplication tables, memorizing formulas and rules, stuff like that is boring yet critical.

At 11/17/2009 3:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Math skills are severely hurt by computational devices, cell phones, computers etc. There is virtually no mental math taught anymore to verify the results of computational math."

I'd disagree with you Chuck. My school days were in the 80s and even though the classes I'm taking now are at a 2 year school, computational math is a big part of it. We are limited to +-*/ and trig on the calculator. We draft by hand and diagram by hand.

Once you pass these classes you can get into AutoCad, but passing is often 80% if not 90%.

If you think education unions were bad, look at the hold they have in trades. I have the skills to pass the licensing requirements for electrical and plumbing, but since I haven't carried the union card for 10 years, I'm not welcomed by the state.

The trades haven't evolved since the middle ages.

At 11/17/2009 9:19 AM, Anonymous Blackberry Insurance Dude said...

If half the kids are not very good at algebra, and another half of them are not very good at fractions, what are the last half good at?


At 11/17/2009 9:29 AM, Blogger Jody Wilson said...

The last thing we need to do is to nationalize a potentially damaging policy. Let states or local districts try their own ways, so that successful educational experiments can be copied by others, and unsuccessful ones discarded.

At 11/17/2009 9:39 AM, Anonymous Frasier said...

Some teachers love the subject and teach to share their interest and enthusiasm. More often, as the author points out, education majors come from the lower tier of undergrads. They want to get a job teaching - who cares what the subject is.

For the non-teaching educator the goal is to get published. To do so, one has to develop something "new". At the local level, the "new" idea is presented at teacher's conferences. At the state and national level you're into curriculum development and standards. (I learned "new math", following the JFK/NASA initiative in the 60's. It didn't work.)

Combine both levels then add politicians and lots of money. The entire concept is flawed from top to bottom. Solution: end it. Eliminate the education degree requirements to teach, allow school choice, and scrap the education bureaucracy, just for starters.

At 11/17/2009 9:50 AM, Anonymous Rand said...

into which they’ve brought theories lacking any evidence of success and that emphasize political and social ends, not mastery of mathematics

Trofim Lysenko is reborn.

At 11/17/2009 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recalling the college catalog back when I was in school (early 1970s) in math there were math courses and math courses for teachers in most subjects. My parents recalled that in the late 1940s it was said that if you could not get thru anyplace else in college go to the school of education.
Of course ever since the high school was introduced education has been going to hell in a handbasket, so nothing is new here.
Mentioning calculation in the mid 1970's back when the clerk at McDonalds had to add the total by hand, it was interesting to see what resemblance the total had to reality. McDonalds fixed that with the computer at the order desk. So for computational issues its at least a generation old in the US. Interestingly at the same time waiters in Germany did totals correctly in their heads.

At 11/17/2009 1:12 PM, Blogger Bloggin' Brewskie said...

There's no way around it, anyone who wants good math skills needs to start at a young age, learning boring drill after boring drill. Yup, it's not fun, but one has to tough their focus through boring fundamentals, memorizing multiplication tables, getting laughed at by the cool kids, etc. Historically, it’s the only proven method. There’s no second chances later in life.

We can figure out how to deal with the retiring baby boomers; but I believe - when I look around and see the grey hairs among fellow engineers, researchers and other scientific personal, and consider the few young replacements we have coming up - this will have grave implications for America's technological respect in the world, and its standard of living.

Sport warriors and actors may earn the love and praise of the crowds, flashy lawyers and bankers may drive fly cars, charismatic politicians gain the euphoria of power; but it’s engineers who build cities, medical researchers who cure diseases, save lives, eggheads who design crafts to fly us to Delaware or space.

At 11/17/2009 3:29 PM, Blogger QT said...

Bloggin' Brewskie,

I second that sentiment. A very small percentage of citizens has an outsized influence on our we even know the name of the man who discovered the first statin. Unfortunately, it is the lawyers who make up the bulk of the political class.

Chinese Capitalist,

Good point about the way that the education profession tries to make subjects appealing rather than focusing on content. Funnily, many mathematicians will tell you that they find math strangely beautiful and experience most would find difficult to relate to.

At 11/17/2009 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Why can't a subject be appealing and focus on the content at the same time? You have to keep them awake after 9:00 PM somehow or the content does not matter:)

At 11/17/2009 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Qt makes a point that to the right person Math and Science can be appealing.
However this requires an particular kind of intellectual curiosity that most likely don't have. Second to get to that level you have to get past the dull and boring introductory stuff that often seems cut and dried with nothing interesting about it.
Teachers because they never see this level are not excited about what they teach so students quickly get the message that this is dull stuff and tune it out. For example I wonder how much biology teaches about the huge intellectual fermet going on in the field as the scientific revolution washes over the field.While to understand this one often needs foundations in math and the like, it can be made clearly with the right explication, but few can do this. It takes someone who really understands the field both viscerally and intellectually to do this. As an example take Feynman in the Feynman Lectures in Physics. Clearly he understands the subject in all dimensions, and thus can communicate with all levels (in a Caltech environment).
Actually come to think about it the same issue occurs in History, where it is often taught as a system of facts. However clearly top authors and movie makers like Ken Burns can teach and involve the learner in ways standard teaching does not, or David McCullough on the Adamses the Brooklyn Bridge, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and many other subjects.
Part of the idea is one has to tell a story, since that is what people are trained to hear (likely thats how we retained knowledge before writing) and recall how much family knowledge is handed down with stories.
What is needed is to figure out how to tell stories about Math (of which there are many if you teach it as it evolved, not as presented).

At 11/17/2009 6:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very small percentage of citizens has an outsized influence on our society...

Yes, and they are called teachers.

As interesting as Trofim Lysenko's story is as a case study of the perils of totalitarianism and the institutionalization leftist thought, the person to study here is Antonio Gramsci. Read the part about these "educators" motivations in regard to this abandoning of established methods of teaching:

"... influential educators sought to dismiss the traditional curriculum altogether, viewing it as a white, Christian, heterosexual-male product that unjustly valorized rational, abstract, and categorical thinking over the associative, experience-based, and emotion-laden thinking supposedly more congenial to females and certain minorities."

"... education faculty eventually figured out how to reimagine the mathematics curriculum, too, so that it could march under the banner of social justice ... , “the traditional curriculum was a vehicle for . . . the perpetuation of privilege.” The new approach would change all that."

This is a conscious and deliberate effort to undermine mathematics and science education in an effort to lay low the "white, Christian, heterosexual-male" destroying the "perpetuation of his [perceived] privilege." In other words, it is an effort motivated by racism, sexism and bigotry.

The sad fact is that a large and growing part of our educational institutions have been taken over by radicals intent on remaking society through the indoctrination and re-education of our children. They are not troubled by the idea of America losing it's edge in technology and medicine. In fact, they would view such an outcome as the fulfillment of their efforts and a triumph for "social justice".

At 11/17/2009 7:54 PM, Anonymous Dr. T said...

Seven years ago, I taught a statistics course at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Virginia required two years of algebra for a high school diploma. Despite that requirement, ODU had to create a remedial algebra course (which, unbelievably, was for college credits). Even more dismaying: over 20% of the science majors needed to take the course! They didn't know enough algebra to get through Chemistry 101.

At 11/17/2009 9:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a graduate student from a top ten university I witnessed first hand the limited intellect of Ed PhD students. They were ALWAYS the lowest performers who did not grasp the materials presented. How in the world can they teach what they do not understand.

At 11/17/2009 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Anon at 9:24 comment. My parents (WWII generation ) said that it was said you did if you couldn't do you taught and if you couldn't teach you taught teachers. It appears that it has always been thus.(At least back to the 1940s)

At 11/21/2009 11:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obama is giving us exactly what the NEA has been giving us for over 40 years now; that is an education system designed to deliver poor quality. This is a system designed to further the interests of the controlling union ( the NEA). They are more important to the liberal elites than the education of the masses. The elites children will continue to get quality educations at private schools. This system did not exist until Jimmy Carter signed the bill in 1974 allowing the public school teachers to unionize. Now you know why 40% of public school teachers send their children to private schools.

At 12/18/2009 6:14 PM, Anonymous Ajay said...

The problem is that neither side of this debate knows what's really necessary. The teachers just want to make up some random standard that is easy and gives them more make-work to pretend to do (not all of course, I went to a public school and had some very good teachers). The math/science societies want to drill in a bunch of frankly useless math/science, that is then lauded by most of the commenters here. There is no use for multiplication tables or calculus for the vast majority of people. You will not even have cash registers soon: your cell phone will automatically haggle with the store's purchasing server, if you even go to the store rather than ordering online (I've been ordering all my groceries online for years, it's great :) ), and you'll just be told a total and walk out (think of that IBM ad where the guy just walks out the store). Calculus is essentially useless unless you're one of the .00001% of engineers who will then program the computer software that employs it. Nowadays you don't use calculus to build things, you use software that presents you with a simpler interface, then does the math for you in the background. The software is written once by 20 engineers who know the math and then used by thousands of other engineers who don't need to know it, let alone the thousands of non-engineers who shouldn't be going anywhere near it. Ultimately all this confusion isn't going to matter, as online education is about to take off and destroy the current college and public education systems, using exactly these principles to outmaneuver the current system, while delivering it at a fraction of the cost by cutting out all the school buildings and teachers.


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