(…and so far, the blob seems to be winning)
Here’s a New York Daily News article on mathematical ignorance among City University of New York students:
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.
And here’s Sandra Stotsky, discussing some of the reasons for poor math performance in America’s schools:
But the president’s worthy aims (to improve math and science education–ed) 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.
Classroom practices follow logically from these theories. Teacher-directed learning goes out the window, despite its demonstrated benefits for students with learning problems; instead, schools should embrace “student-centered” math classrooms. High-math-achievement countries teach arithmetic in the elementary grades in a coherent curriculum leading, step by step, to formal algebra and geometry in middle school. The progressive educators, by contrast, support “integrated” approaches to teaching math—that is, teaching topics from all areas of mathematics every year, regardless of logical sequence and student mastery of each step—and they downplay basic arithmetic skills and practice, encouraging kids to use calculators from kindergarten on. The educators also neglect the teaching of standard algorithms (mathematical procedures commonly taught everywhere, with only minor variations, because of their general applicability), insisting instead on the value of student-developed algorithms—this despite research by cognitive psychologists strongly supporting a curriculum that simultaneously develops conceptual understanding, computational fluency with standard algorithms, and problem-solving skills as the best way to prepare students for algebra.
Read the whole depressing thing.
I think much of the problem with math teaching, and with K-12 teaching in general, stems from the fact that many of the people dominating our public schools are highly anti-intellectual, in the sense that they themselves do not put much value on knowledge, and don’t really believe that anyone else does, either. (Ironically, many of these individuals probably view themselves as intellectuals, are very very proud of their–often very lame–college degrees, and love to sneer at what they view as the “uneducated” mass of Americans.)
For decades, educators have been justifying their even-increasing demands for money by talking about how we live in a scientific society, or a technological society, or a “knowledge economy.” It’s pretty clear, though, that the controlling forces in public education have no serious interest in providing the kind of education that is actually relevant to science and engineering. This practice of demanding money for one purpose, and then actually using the money for wholly other purposes, constitutes fraud on a very large scale, in a moral if not in a legal sense.
Is there any hope for major improvements in this situation? Despite all the speeches about “reform,” much of public education in America remains tightly controlled by the aggregate of interest groups that has been referred to as the blob.
And, given that the blob is a major constituency of the Democratic Party, I don’t think there is likely to be much improvement unless and until the power of the Democrats is decisively broken, in states as well as at the national level. People should still work to improve things at the local level when they can, of course: getting a good math education for 100,000 kids is worthwhile even when millions are still being mis-educated. But from the standpoint of the overall country and its economy, these mammoth educational failures should be of major concern. To quote again from Stotsky’s article:
A form of mathematics stripped of much of its intellectual content has obvious repercussions for higher education and the American economy. Hung-Hsi Wu, a Berkeley mathematician, expressed the view of many of his peers when he wrote in 1997 that the brand of mathematics purveyed by the NCTM’s 1989 report “has the potential to change completely the undergraduate mathematics curriculum and to throttle the normal process of producing a competent corps of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.” And Larry Faulkner, the panel’s chair and past president of the University of Texas in Austin, warns that if national policy doesn’t ensure the development of a large domestic workforce with first-rate technical skills, we risk “technological surprise to our economic viability and to the foundations of our country’s security.” If the bleak math statistics in the United States don’t change soon, such “surprise” may well be imminent. The math wars, which started in debates about pedagogy, may end in questions about the long-term prospects for American prosperity.
(both links via Erin O’Connor)