To Math or Not to Math

Over the weekend, I listened to “Decoding the Math Myth,” a podcast hosted by American Radio Works where Andrew Hacker, retired Queens College professor and political scientist talks about his book The Math Myth and Other Stem Delusions. As someone who struggled in math and who has only used basic arithmetic as an adult, this subject appealed to me.

I especially enjoyed Hacker’s push against high school curriculum that often encourages students, who want to at least be considered by good colleges, to take pre-calculus or calculus, without other options. He argues that classes along the lines of numeracy and citizens statistics could be just as challenging, and, in Hacker’s mind, more fruitful. To a certain extent, I agree. At the outset, mastering statistics seems as if it’s not only difficult but applicable to various fields, but research in particular.

I then listened to the follow-up podcast, “Is Advanced Math Necessary?” Where Standford professor Keith Devlin argues that Hacker has a rudimentary understanding of advanced math and that Hacker does not even know the history of math and how it connects to higher order thinking. While I do t think Devlin’s response is clear in the American Radio Works podcast, his Huffington Post article on the subject seems to be a more organized and clear outline of how Hacker is uninformed on the subject of advanced math and how this lack of expertise led him to misguided views. In explaining the reason and use of the first algebra textbook, Devlin shows how Hacker’s claims actually favor algebra:

The focus was on how to think about problems, and had nothing to do with manipulating symbols. That is algebra. It is exactly the mental toolkit that Hacker says repeatedly is crucially important and should be taught in schools.

Without realizing it, Devlin argues, Hacker actually wants to change how it’s taught in classrooms and not simply so away with it. Devlin largely agrees with Hacker, especially in the idea that high school math, whether it be alegebra, calculus or statistics, needs to be taught in a way that seems practical and  not in such away that seems as if it’s being taught for math’s sake.

I’d like to take Hacker’s point of replacing algebra with classes like numeracy and citizens statistics in a slightly different direction. It would be great to see colleges favor advanced math courses that include not only calculus or statistics but also numeracy because they’re all beneficial for growth in there own ways. In his American Radio Works podcast, Hacker outlines a math class he taught that involved real world problems, which allowed students to see why they were learning that level of math and how it can be used in the world the see around them.

Are They Really Paying Attention?

How closely do people create, approve and implement curriculum pay attention to what the job and career force need from future employees?

Do those who have say over curriculum strategically think about students’ career prospects?

I’m curious to know how they react to the World Economic Forum‘s top list of skills needed to be successful in both today’s and the year 2020’s workforce.

I’d also would love to know what skills they thought were important five years ago and how they, at least tried to bring those skills to the classrom, and if any of those skills prove to be useful.


Mini-Documentaries More Beneficial in Schools Than Lengthy Films

Short, precise and well thought out documentaries can be more useful and efficient alternatives to time sucking films, according to the NYT‘s “Film Club”, which produces 8-12 minute long mini-documentaries that are aimed at adding onto how students take in and reflect on various subjects.  I love the article’s emphasis on critical thinking skills. Each mini-documentary comes with supplement materials that help facilitate a conversation about topics such as the documentary’s purpose and individual student’s personal reflection and reaction to a documentary. But, what I think is more important is the encouragement for students to write down quotes or note parts that stood out to them. I think this is a great opportunity to allow students to pay attention and find what appeals to them (or what doesn’t) and then try to articulate (either orally or writing) why they feel the way they do. Rather than watching an hour long film, students can spend the class period watching a ten minue mini-documentary, five minutes on individual reflection, then break out into mini groups discussing their thoughts and answering questions tailored to provoking critical thinking skills. The teacher would pop-in on each group’s session, taking note of each students oral articulation skills and provide feedback to the student on a one-on-one basis at some point before week’s end.

High Graduation Rates Are Sadly Inflated; H.S. Diplomas, Meaningless

This NYT article discusses how the increase in high schoool graduation rates doesnt mean more students are graduating at grade level– the truth is students are more likely to graduate far below grade level. 

What’s so disturbing about this article is that it’s not that high school graduates aren’t just unprepared for college, they’re unprepared for life. They’re underperforming in fundamental english, math and verbal skills. It’s sad that schools are sending teenagers out into the world with a valueless diploma for the sake of graduation rates. It’s sad they can do that. It’s sad that students are passing fifth grade without writing clear, coherent sentences and graduatting high school without being able to artuculate themselves. Not everyone is made for college, but most high school students should at least have the most basic skills down pat…we’re required to go to school for TWELVE years…what do we have to show for it? 
As you know, my high school was going through the turn-around process while I was a sophmore. With a little less than 200 students in my class, I was in the top twenty and scored a 5 on the AP English exam. I got to college and was able to avoid math but certainly wasn’t ready to compete with my peers in writing. My writing was atrocious. So, you can imagine how the bottom half (or even the bottom 3/4) of my high school class faired out. How was I able to write paper after paper, complete with weak sentence structure, an inability to connect thoughts and poor grammar, and still  get a 95 in English? I tend to side with teachers when it comes to attactching exams to high-stake consequences, but teachers are blantly deceiving students like myself. More shockingly, New York state and city required exams, along with AP exams, are certainly poor indicators of academic acheivement. Are the standards that low? 

Graduates are only being scarred by this false acheivement. This, to me, only proves that Common Core, No Child Left Behind and the city and state-wide exams required to graduate are in no way accurate when it comes to evaluating life-readiness. A high school diploma, unfortunately, doesn’t represent the deep content a student has learned. Nor does it  indicate that she’s mastered foundational math, literacy, written and verbal skills. Graduating high school students is far less about prepping them for the real world and more about giving off an appearnce that students are learning. This, now an apparent fact, begs the simple question: why is public high school education prioritizing graduation rates over quality education?

I feel the answer lies in high stakes testing and our schools curriculum structure. More on that in a later post.