Saturday, July 28, 2007

Doing the Math

What’s math?

When most people use the word “math,” they mean arithmetic: adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. These are skills every adult needs to function—to pay bills, buy groceries, make sure they end up with the right number of kids at the end of the day.

What do high school and college teachers mean by math? They mean algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. These are skills often needed by researchers, engineers, and computer programmers but not by people in many other types of work.

To enter most four-year colleges in the U.S., most students need to be familiar with some basic principles of higher mathematics. Those who enter careers in business or the humanities, however, are unlikely ever to use them.

For decades, public education has provided for the needs of all students, whether they were gifted or challenged in math, whether their brains were ready for algebra and calculus or whether they weren’t.

Those who were developmentally ready for higher mathematics completed at least Algebra 2 in high school, often going directly to college. Others took more time to learn, perhaps (if their life plan required more schooling) starting at a two-year college before transferring to a university. Many got jobs and later returned to school for further training. (Brain development for many people isn’t complete until they’re well into their twenties, by which time certain tasks have become easier.)

The bulldozer of “educational reform” and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has changed all that. The politicians who run education in my state, among others, have decreed that every child “should” graduate high school ready for college-level math. A federally mandated “high stakes test” requires students to do lots of problems that go way beyond arithmetic—and to do them, furthermore, in the second semester of their sophomore year. If they fail (and about half the 10th grade students in the state do) they are labeled as failures and given penance in the form of more tests, summer school, and mandatory classes that replace their elective courses.

Here are some of the results:
  • More drop outs.

    High school students who’ve failed the state test in earlier grades drop out, reluctant to fail again when it counts the most. (Students who disappear from school these days are rarely reported as “drop-outs," though. Many schools list them as “transferred,” because NCLB penalizes schools whose kids drop out.)

  • Elective classes cancelled.

    Courses like art, drama, music, drafting, shop, home economics, PE, and other electives disappear, as more and more students are required to take remedial classes to prepare them for THE test. (In other words, lots of kids are deprived of classes they like most—classes where they can show off their talents and develop skills that might lead toward a satisfying career.)

  • Fewer high-level courses.

    Talented students lose opportunities to take high-level and special courses—courses like physics, anatomy, statistics, and second- or third-year chemistry—because teachers and money are increasingly needed for remedial classes. (Schools are judged on how many students pass THE test, not how many reach their real potential in high school.)

Americans have bought into the myth that public education is in shambles and our kids are failing. That perception isn’t going to change overnight. But there are a few things American voters ought to know, regardless of what the headlines say:

  • The “math” kids supposedly don’t know is not arithmetic. With very few exceptions, kids can do arithmetic.

  • Teachers aren’t stupid, subversive, or opposed to public discussions about education. They’re just discouraged and tired of being blamed for nonexistent problems.

  • Not every child can or should learn at the same pace in every subject area. A kid who takes longer than others to learn algebra may be light-years ahead in other subjects. Kids need to be allowed to learn at their own pace in many different areas.

  • Comparisons with students in other countries are virtually always meaningless for many reasons, including the fact that all American students are often compared only to the college-ready kids in other cultures.

  • Before NCLB, kids weren’t being left behind, unless it was because of the hellacious inequality of educational funding in America.

They weren’t being left behind, but now they are.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Let Me Count the Fallacies

The facts: A few high school kids in California, protesting certain issues regarding immigration, ran a Mexican flag up a pole with an American flag under it, upside down.

One result: A frantic glut of emails hastily sent out by countless Internet users to everyone on their mailing lists. (Those who felt this item was worthy of my time and attention happened to be, somewhat to my surprise, well-educated adults.)

The much-forwarded email shows pictures of the kids and the flags. The text accompanying these photos is so full of fallacious reasoning that it would be humorous, if it weren’t so dangerous. Here’s a sample (fallacies added, in italics):

  • ”I predict this stunt will be the nail in the coffin of [sic] any guest-worker/amnesty plan on the table in Washington.” (ad hominum and hasty generalization)

  • ”Pass this along to every American citizen in your address book and to every representative in the state and federal government.” (bandwagon)

  • ”If you choose to remain uninvolved [by not forwarding the email], do not be amazed when you no longer have a nation to call your own (slippery slope) nor anything you have worked for left since it will be ‘redistributed’ to the activists while you are so peacefully staying out of the ‘fray.’” (appeal to emotion, straw man, misrepresentation, exaggeration)

  • Check history, it is full of nations/empires that disappeared when its citizens no longer held their core beliefs and values.” (non sequitur)

Speaking of core beliefs and values, how does instigating hatred against a few teens who have the guts to try to make a political and moral statement square with the values of a country that purports to value free speech?

Some months ago, many Muslims throughout the world became enraged because a series of cartoons depicting Muhammad appeared in Danish newspapers. Swarms of Internet messages circulated in the U.S., denouncing their attitudes as examples of extremism and hypersensitivity.

I suppose it’s safe to assume that those who denounced the Muslims are not the same people who forwarded the email about the California teens. After all, to criticize the Muslims for overreacting and then do so themselves would be—well, illogical. Right?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Rock and the Hard Place

This fall, my state is forcing me to participate in the great all-American either-or fallacy: In order to vote in the presidential primary, I have to register as a Democrat or Republican.

What if I don't want to vote for either party? What if I want to vote for what I believe rather than for some "platform" cobbled together by people I don't know and don't trust? What if I want to vote for the planet rather than a person? Or for the interests of future generations rather than my own?

What if I don't want to be labeled?

My hunch is that the candidates--the best of them, anyway--don't like this bipartisan system, either. But in American politics, only two trains pull out, and if you're not on one of them, you're left standing at the station.

Here's what really scares me. Supposedly, there's a balance of power in American government among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Supposedly, they keep each other in check. But in reality, there's now a fourth power in politics, one that permeates the whole process but, like dark matter in the universe, is invisible to the naked eye: the power of the Parties. Party leadership, who are not accountable to anyone except themselves and their own vested interests, make decisions of monumental importance.

Watergate should have been a warning to us. And what about the strange, disproportionate power of Dick Cheney?

By voting for my preferred candidate, I’ll be inadvertently supporting a system that is subverting everything my vote stands for. My vote will be tinged by the proverbial red or blue of party politics and possibly rendered meaningless by the antiquated electoral college system. But it is my vote, my little voice, and the only thing worse than having it rendered meaningless by others would be not to cast it at all.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Supreme Anachronism

With so much that needs to be accomplished on this shrinking planet, it’s discouraging to hear about yet another set of contentious, regressive 5-to-4 decisions from the Supreme Court. With two recent Bush appointees on the bench, the nation can only watch as the Court blithely turns history in its head, undoing decisions previous courts have made in the past (such as the recent decision effectively outlawing school desegregation). It’s depressing to think what kind of damage may be done in coming years to important legislation protecting the environment, human rights, and free speech.

The Supreme Court (which, incidentally, did not spring forth fully fledged from the minds of the Founding Fathers but rather evolved into its present form) needs a little work in my opinion.

First, we should increase the number of justices. There’s nothing magic about the number 9. Given the gravity of the decisions the Court has to make, I think the committee should be larger. Also, there should be an even number of justices so they have to listen to each other, negotiate, and compromise in order to reach a decision. The practice would be good for them.

Second, there should be term limits and health standards. Since we don’t get to vote on the justices, we shouldn’t be stuck with them for decades—especially when they’ve become dotty or decrepit to the point where they can’t find the bathroom or stay awake during arguments. (Click here for more about term limits.)

Finally, let’s get some people on the bench who know something about something besides the law. Laws don’t exist in an idyllic universe, like Plato’s forms. They’re entwined with the material world in which things are happening that would have astonished the authors of the Constitution. Shouldn’t we have people involved in making important decisions who have deep knowledge—doctors involved in making decisions about medicine, teachers about education, scientists about science, engineers about technology?

If we want truly impartial Supreme Court Justices to thread the modern world through the eye of the Constitution, we’d best start programming robots to do it. If we want human beings to make decisions that will move us along toward greater civility and enlightenment, we’d better make sure they’re as a-political, well-adjusted, well-informed as human beings can be.