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Monday, July 30, 2012

There Are Many Ways to Improve High School Education: Dumbing It Down Is NOT One of Them

Have you ever been at a social gathering and heard someone proclaim, somewhat proudly, that they just don't "get" math? They dropped it in high school as soon as they could. If so, you probably resisted telling them how sorry you are that they are stupid and you probably avoided getting into a discussion about people who say the same thing about history or literature. You know that those same people would be appalled to hear you say that you don't "get" the arts and dropped them as soon as you could.

If Andrew Hacker has his way, people who can't pass a simple math course will never have to apologize again. He proposes, in the New York Times, no less, to eliminate algebra from high school [Is Algebra Necessary?]. (Andrew Hacker is a former professor of political science.)

The blogosphere has erupted with posts defending the teaching of math in high school. That's exciting and encouraging. I won't repeat what they say; instead I want to concentrate on two specific items in Hacker's opinion piece.

He complains about the failure rate in high school ...
To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
Why should America be "ashamed" of a 75% success rate in finishing high school? What's the ideal number? Surely it isn't 100% because that would mean making high school so easy that everyone can graduate. What's the point of that? Is high school just a glorified day care center for teenagers?

We can't have an intelligent discussion about the goals of high school education until we agree on just how high the bar should be set. Is it at ground level or is it higher? Personally, I think a 75% success rate is about right.

The second item is about the kinds of people who should graduate from high school, not necessarily the overall numbers. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that only the top 75% of students should graduate. What kind of students should be able to jump that hurdle? Here's what Andrew Hacker thinks ...
This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.
I bet you can see where this is headed, right? It's the two cultures issue rearing its ugly head [Cocktail Parties and the Two Cultures] [Postmodernism and the Two Cultures]. Andrew Hacker is worried about wasted brainpower if we flunk all those students who can't understand introductory math and science. In contrast, I bet he would be happy to flunk all those math and science geeks who can't pass a course in history, French, and social studies.

Hacker is arguing that you should be able to get a high school diploma without having to take algebra and, by implication, most sciences, since math is a prerequisite for introductory physics, chemistry, and biology.
California’s two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history.
I'm sorry but I don't lose any sleep over this. If you can't master simple high school subjects like algebra then you shouldn't be in university.1 (I doubt very much that there are students who "excel" in the humanities subjects but couldn't get through the easiest math courses. That's probably a myth.)

What kind of students should graduate from high school? Only those who can master the same high schools subjects we've been teaching for the past four generations. We want math and science literate citizens just as much as those who have an introductory knowledge of history and social studies. If you can't master all these topics at a high school level—as your parents and grandparents did—then you don't get to go to the prom.

If that means that extraordinary numbers of students are flunking out of high school then we'd better work on teaching math and science better. And we'd better work on getting society to understand why math (and science) is important. Most of all, we should show young students that everyone is capable of learning math just as eveyone is capable of learning all other subjects. We can't do that as long as there are former political science professors making excuses for not "getting" math.

[Photo Credit: The Algebra Dispute]

1. I feel the same way about basic, introductory, high school science. You have no business going to university if you can't take a first year science course.


  1. You sound like you're advocating teaching certain subjects because that's the way it has always been. That's not your position, is it?

  2. "Andrew Hacker is a former professor of political science."
    How can anyone be a professor of political science? Politics is not a science.:)

  3. I agree with down with math.
    first its been a waste of intellectual energy for kids forever.
    It serves nothing.
    Someone who needs it can learn it.
    Further math is not really a thinking subject as much as a memorizing subject.
    One is really memorizing concepts already discovered.
    Its like memorizing state capitals.
    I don't see the claim math has to the same prestige of subjects where one must choose options or discover the,
    Math is for studious people but not thinking people .
    I am confident the same type who prevail in math are the ones who prevail in spelling.
    paying attention to info is not the same thing as thinking where conclusions are more involved or not discovered or in contention.

    As a creationist I would insist errors, like evolution, exist in a society where math and spelling are held up as smart and not logic, analysis, thoughtfulness, or weighing concepts.

    The demis of math interest will see the rise of progress in human knowledge and understanding of everything.
    Math is for memorizers.

    1. How wrong is it possible to be?

      "math is not really a thinking subject as much as a memorizing subject."

      As a fundamentally lazy person, the thing I found most attractive about maths is that you don't have to memorise a lot of stuff: you just have to understand a few simple concepts and you can easily reconstruct the proofs of useful results whenever you happen to need them, such as, at school, in exams.

    2. Seriously, this guy's post sounds like he never even got through Algebra.

      Very few people can just memorize a subject in math, and then be capable of solving problems. Those very very few people already have a tenacity for problem solving, patterns, and implementation.

      Memorization is the easy part of math. Implementing what you memorized so you can actually do things with it is the hard part, and the part that requires practice.

  4. I agree with the idea math is a waste of intellectual energy for kids.
    its not needed and for those who do they can learn it themselves.
    Math is wrongly seen as a high intellectual subject. iN fact it is just about memorizing a few concepts and then being studius in applying them.
    The same kids who prevail math prevail in spelling.
    its other subjects that require holding concepts and and using them to figure things out or understand things that deserve attention and prestige.

    As a creationist i would say modern intersts in math etc are the reason for errors like evolution.
    There is a lack of analysis,thoughtfulness, and discovery abilities in modern education.
    Instead its just memorizing state capitals, math, or words.
    Thinking people should stay away from math and leave it to studious people who are just memorizing already accepted things.

    1. Well, Booby Byers continues to demonstrate his incompetence and stupidity. Math is absolutely essential for anyone planning to go into physics, chemistry, computer science, certain areas of biology (e.g. genetics), and engineering. The notion that math consists of mostly memorizing a few concepts is totally nuts. But, of course, this type of mentality is entirely expected from religious whackjobs like Booby Byers.

    2. Prof. Hacker is not the first individual to question the value of math. Several years ago, there was a brouhaha over a column in the Washington Post by Richard Cohen that advised a young student not to take algebra in school as it was, in his opinion, useless.

    3. Robert Byers is putting folks on here....

    4. Re andyboerger

      Having read Booby Byers contributions to Panda's Thumb, I think he is being entirely serious. Booby Byers is a young earth creationist. In order to believe that, one has to believe that vast areas of physics, geology, astronomy and biology are totally invalid and the the experts in those fields are liars.

    5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    7. SLC, really? Okay, I will take your word for it as you seem to have more information. But I look at those words above and still have a hard time seeing that as anything but satire. wow...

    8. Andy,
      Robert got me too. Have you heard about Poe's law?

    9. ha ha, NE, yes, I have heard of it. Fully operational in this case, it appears.

    10. Based on his comments on Panda's Thumb, I don't think that he is a Poe. By the way, I seem to recall a comment from him over there indicating that he is also a global warming denier. What a surprise.

    11. SLC,

      Maybe he is playing creationist there too. The writing got worse from one comment to the next. Too exaggerated. And who really, who would be so dumb as to think that math is just about memorizing? I know we think of creationists as dumb. But that much? I might be wrong. But isn't Poe's law all about exactly that?

    12. Re Negative Entropy

      I posed the question over at Panda's
      Thumb and Joe Felsenstein, who, I believe, is one of the moderators there, responded that Booby Byers is not a Poe. I suspect that they know who he is (he's a Canadian) via his IP address. His latest comment was sent to the bathroom wall and they may be getting tired of him taking up storage space.

  5. The thing that gets me is the misspellings after he equates correct spelling with math, both as being unworthy subjects for study. It all adds up to a prank, and yet....