Saturday, September 22, 2007

Math's not important...

Several weeks ago, the Oakland Press published my opinion piece on K-12 test scores (Michigan Merit Exam and ACT), in which I cautioned readers to beware of schools “spinning" the test scores story to influence public opinion. (A blog entry and the article are here.)

William Boyle, Principal of the Bloomfield Hills Alternative High School countered with his own opinion, which didn't actually rebut my premise on test score "spin", but instead, challenged the notion that studying advanced math is important.

Oakland Press: Education is about more than just math (09/17/07)

Boyle states, “Using present test score results, Reno points out that many of our students will not be ready for ‘college math.’ This statement assumes that the need to know higher-level math is important for all.”

He goes on to say, “In fact, the need for math in the educational world is highly overstated… yet Reno suggests that 100 percent of our students need to know it.”

Unfortunately, I’ve heard similar arguments raised at Rochester's own school board table. It's as if some honestly believe that children interested in art or music don’t need much more than “checkbook math”. Or that students who aren’t going to be doctors really don’t need biology.

If 100% of our students don't need math and science, what percentage do?

What fraction of U.S. students should be guided to pursue less rigorous coursework because they view academic subjects as “drudgery”?

And if a student does view academic subjects as “drudgery", is this saying something about the student or the teaching?

Boyle quotes
Dennis Redovich, of the Center for the Study of Jobs & Education in Wisconsin and the United States, “Less than 5 percent of jobs in the United States require higher math and science preparation.”

When did teaching bare minimums become our goal?

Redovich is a scary source. The forward to his book, "The Big Con in Education", points out, "Most jobs the economy is creating are low-skill, service sector jobs. Wal-Mart trumps Microsoft." As if that's supposed to lead to a career strategy on which to base a student's education.

Once upon a time there were those who argued that because children would grow up to be farmers or factory workers, there wasn't much reason to teach them to read.

The world has since evolved.

The merits of learning math should be obvious. Math is sometimes referred to as the language of science. Our world advances in countless ways due to the work of those who apply higher order math to scientific and technological innovation.

But beyond the thousands of ordinary and extraordinary jobs which require mathematical knowledge, the study of mathematics is a universally recognized for its fundamental value in developing critical thinking skills.

And despite what Boyle says, math does not conflict with creativity.

Stephen Campbell, Professor of Education at the University of California, Irvine says this about studying math:

"In its finest sense, mathematics is a well-established and proven key to unlocking the infinite potential of the human mind to create new conceptual structures and to discover existing ones. The study of mathematics has long been recognized the most appropriate way out of the cave of human ignorance."

We should teach advanced math because of its relevance and its potential across all disciplines.

And we should teach advanced math because we can. Children of every race, ethnicity, religion, and income level can learn it with hard work, disipline, and good teaching.

I was surprised at the statement, "Because of the increased obstacles, more of our students will choose to opt out of the educational system." The new state graduation requirements specifically provide “opt out” provisions so that students -- with parent and educator agreement -- can opt out of the graduation requirements rather than opt out of school. This was specifically designed for those Boyle describes as being “not hardwired for math”.

I agree it’s unlikely that we’ll get 100% of our students through these tough courses, and we do need a safety net. But that “opt out” bar should be set pretty high, and 100% should always be our goal.

Yes, it’s tough for children – really tough for some – to get through advanced academic subjects. But as parents and teachers, we have an obligation to encourage students not to give up just because something is hard.

Boyle’s article helps to illustrate that this will be a challenge for educators as well.

Parents and policymakers need to encourage them too, so that they don’t give up on our children – just because it’s hard.

==> Mike.

P.S. The other point made by Mr. Boyle -- that setting high standards is some sort of elitist plot with a "hidden agenda" -- is absurd.


Kaz Maslanka said...

Mathematics is not only a language for science it is also a language for art. At the risk of tooting my horn please see my blog and you will understand my point.

Kaz Maslanka

Anonymous said...

Im actually writing a paper on this exact issue and my friends and I have come across, what we believe is an interesting point. Undoubtedly, mathematics develops students, such as myself, in ways other subjects can not. As you said, "it's fundamental value in developing critical thinking skills"...

but I ask you this: why mathematics? Why are we using mathematics to teach us this? I can agree that we need to develop these certain skills, whether or not we will actually use a higher level of math in the future. But then why not use other, more practical subjects to get us there?

Now I don't really have any real suggestions, but surely it is out there. I just really don't understand why you support the teaching of practically useless information, just develop OTHER skills and make OTHER statements (such as the whole "not giving up when things are hard")