Neglecting math can add up to trouble
When it comes to math, Colorado schools get a D. That’s D as in barely passing. D as in Dereliction of Duty for Dogmatically Disseminating Dumbed-Down Doggie Doo in Districts from Denver to Durango.
As a computer science professor, I’ve been doing math all my life. If someone disses my favorite subject in my favorite state, I want to know why. So I downloaded the Fordham Foundation’s new report on math standards from www.edexcellence.net. It’s depressing, disheartening, and dead-on.
A D is awful, but at least we passed. The kids next door did worse: Wyoming got an F, and so did Kansas. I can feel my self-esteem being enhanced already.
To be sure. Fordham’s got nothing against Colorado. Our geography standards earned an A, the highest in the country. We may be importing engineers from other countries, but at least we can find them on the map.
Ditto with calculator use. It’s great to say “the use of calculators and computers is not intended to replace proficiency with basic facts”. Right on, math people! Rock on with your bad selves!
But the standard goes from rock and roll to the hamster dance when it says K-4 students will learn to express numbers in different forms, “including calculators and computers”. The first grade standard specifically mentions calculators as one way to find the answer. First grade!
That small loophole is all that’s necessary for a misguided parent, overworked teacher, or gutless administrator to make math class a whole lot easier. Calculators come in, thinking goes out. The bad ideas drive out the good.
As I read the Colorado Model Content Standards for Mathematics, I kept wondering how anyone who does mathematics for a living could come up with this stuff. Then, on the last page, it hit me: They didn’t.
Looking at Colorado’s math standards (you’ll find them at www.cde.state.co.us ), I’m amazed we passed. Their content is thinner than the margin for Fermat’s Last Theorem, and there’s not enough emphasis on fundamentals. It’s all about demonstrations and playing with stuff (“Constructivist Math”). There’s not nearly enough memorization and computational skills (“Math That Actually Teaches You Something”).
The Fordham report is a damning indictment of math education in America. Only six states earned a B or better. There were fifteen Cs, and eighteen Ds. The remaining states will be socially promoted.
It’s not hard to see why math education has fallen on hard times. We live in an age of entitlement and relativism, where parents demand higher grades instead of higher standards, getting the right answer isn’t as important as being ‘validated’, and acknowledging differences in ability is heresy. Combine that with a monopoly school system immune from competition, and you get an environment where bad ideas drive out good ones.
Out of 17 authors, 4 were mathematicians, all professors like me. The rest were public school teachers or “curriculum specialists”. It doesn’t take a math genius to see if the mathematicians liked something but the teachers didn’t, they’d be outvoted 13 to 4. Hey, this math stuff is pretty handy!
Why was every panelist an educator? Trust me, education isn’t anything like the real world. Did anybody ask an engineer? A space scientist? A venture capitalist? A high-tech CEO? The hubris of my colleagues who think non-educators aren’t worth talking to never ceases to amaze me.
None of this would matter if American students excelled at math. They don’t.
It would be right-wing propaganda if we weren’t outsourcing programming jobs to India. We are.
We could be happy with “I’m just not good at math” if the 21st century economy weren’t based on it. It is.
The facts are all there, we just have to do the math. Provided we still know how.
© 2005, Barry Fagin