Column #46, posted March 18, 2008

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Another brilliant revelation from our heroes in Washington:

“Students who complete Algebra II are more than twice as likely to graduate from college compared to students with less mathematical preparation.”

Would you like to know why this is true (and I have no doubt that it is true)? The answer is given further down in the article:

“The report also cited findings that students who depended on their native intelligence learned less than those who believed that success depended on how hard they worked.”

See, this is an easy one. If you work harder you get into college. Now the question is: why are we making the thing that students have to work harder at – Algebra II?

We know why this panel decided that. At stake is a $100 million federal budget request for Math Now and guess who was on the panel?

I dunno. People who might receive that funding would you guess? You betcha. A panel of university folks who are just dying for that grant money to be approved worked on a very well funded study that proved that the nation would not succeed without that grant money.

My favorite part of the Times’ article was the following:

Dr. Faulkner, a former president of the University of Texas at Austin, said the panel “buys the notion from cognitive science that kids have to know the facts.”

No, Dr Faulkner, as a graduate of your esteemed institution, and as a founder of the field of Cognitive Science, let me suggest, with all due respect, that it is you who needs to know the facts.

The first fact is that you are a chemist, and I am pretty sure don’t really know much about Cognitive Science.

The second fact, is that there is plenty of work in Cognitive Science that shows that background knowledge helps one interpret the world around one, and thus reading, for example, is facilitated by understanding something about the world you are reading about.

The third fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever, that accumulation of facts and background knowledge are the same thing. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Facts learned out of context and apart from actual real world experience that is repeated over and over are not retained.

The fourth fact is that kids don’t like math much and it is clear why. They find it boring and irrelevant to anything they care about doing. If you think math is so important, then why not teach it within a meaningful context, like business, or running a school doing the kind of math you had to do to do that – which certainly wasn’t algebra II. There is plenty of evidence that shows that teaching math within a real and meaningful context works a whole lot better than shoving it down their throats and following that with a multiple choice test.

The fifth fact is that there is no evidence whosoever that says that a nation that is trailing in math test scores will somehow trail in GDP or whatever it is you really care about. This is just plain silly, but we keep repeating the mantra that we are behind Korea in math as if it has been proven that this matters in some way. Nothing of the sort has been proven.

The sixth fact is that there are lots of vested interests who need to keep teaching math. Let me name them – tutoring companies, testing companies, math teachers, book publishers, and many others who make lots of money when people are scared into thinking that their kid won’t get into college because he or she is bad at algebra II.

The seventh fact is that nearly every grown adult has forgotten whatever algebra he or she ever learned to pass those silly tests, so it is clear that algebra is meaningless for adult life. I ask every important person in public life that I meet to tell me The Quadratic Formula. No one has ever been able to do so.

The eighth fact is that any college professor who is honest will tell you that algebra almost never comes up in any college course, and when it does come up it usually needn't be there in the first place.

I know this is a hopeless fight, but algebra really matters not at all in real life and the country will not   fall behind in any way if we simply stop teaching it. That is not a fact, it is just a former math major’s, UT graduate’s, and Computer Science professor’s, point of view.

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