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.


Ann said...

At my high school, they have cut out World History as a class - you can't even take it as an elective - in order to schedule in more time for WASL-centered classes. Really, who needs to know what happened in the world before the inception of the United States?

It's not on the Test, so away it went. Seems a bit of an odd thing to call superfluous, but who am I to talk? I was one of 6 kids in my sophomore class of 70 who passed the WASL when we took it as a pilot... clearly I did not need the "extra prep and practice" now being so graciously granted by the Colfax School system. *snerk*

Where I've seen big problems with my sisters (currently enrolled in said high school) is in English. They're taught ONLY how to "write to the Test" - how to express themselves in nothing but the most formulaic and prescribed manner possible. Writing only on very constrained and very directed topics so that the teacher is able to compare one to the next.

It's depressing. The system is bollocks.

Citizen Jane said...

Indeed it is!

I limited my comments this time around to what the high-stakes math test is doing to students because I don't trust myself to get started on what's happening in English classes.

Ten years ago, I was teaching English, and one of my coworkers remarked that she could no longer fit poetry into the curriculum because of having to teach "WASL rubrics." Now there's no time, either, for world literature, creative writing, or mythology. Teacher and money for books are needed for WASL-related courses.

Ann said...

all American students are often compared only to the college-ready kids in other cultures.

This is kind of the crux of hte problem, isn't it? Not to be an elitist bitch, but there does seem to be something wrong with turning the kindergarten platitude "you can be anything you want to be, honey" into federal mandate. I'm sorry - but not every child does have the talents, the desire, or even the need to attend college. Able to read and write and do arithmetic, yes; trigonometry-proficient and able to do basic prosody? Sad, but honestly probably not. Flying under the assumption that every child must be university-ready is absurd.