If You Say So, Dept.

Education Week with another article that throws gasoline on the fire of “math has never been taught right” by stating that the math that is taught in high school is too “algebra-based”. This one was written by Michael Schmoker whose bonafides, according to his bio, consist of author, speaker, and consultant. All hail and bow down, please. He also writes for ASCD which is famous for it’s rather reform-math bias.

He supports the ideas of Andrew Hacker. Too much algebra apparently. Reminds me of the scene in Amadeus where the emperor tells Mozart that his latest composition had “too many notes”.

Schmoker confides:

I first encountered the incompatibility between school math and real-world math as a school improvement researcher in the 1990s. In interviews, more than a dozen engineers told me that they rarely used algebra, much less geometry, trigonometry, or calculus. Most of their work required simple algebraic concepts they could learn on the job and arithmetic and statistics for more sophisticated tasks.

I couldn’t help but wonder: How many other professional-preparation programs required either too much or the wrong kind of math for prospective workers? And how many students might have become excellent engineers had it not been for the formidable barrier of required high school and college math courses?

Wow–he polled more than a dozen engineers. So n = 12+. How much more than 12, I wonder. Well, OK, I once spoke with an MRI technician who told me he had to take Algebra 2 in order to qualify for his MRI license, and the course he took had a special application of Fourier series–a kind of ready-made plug-in-the-values type of approach rather than the full blown theory which one gets in calculus. He doesn’t use Fourier series in his work–it’s all done by the computer that puts together the MRI images. So one could say, “Yes, everything is done by computers so how much math do you REALLY need?” Granted, he wasn’t an engineer, he was a technician and in Schmoker’s vision, we could do something similar for engineers rather than force them through the dreaded algebra to calculus sequence.

But I imagine some engineers designed the MRI machinery and some wrote the software for the computers to do what they do, and I also imagine that the programmers needed to know what Fourier series were about and how to work with them. Did Mr. Schmoker talk with those folks, I wonder?

I doubt that one could become an “excellent engineer” without knowing something about differential equations, linear algebra, and a good, fluent, working knowledge of algebra. In my discussions with math professors (which numbers a lot more than a dozen), I hear that every year, there are increasing numbers of incoming freshmen taking calculus who don’t have basic algebra skills and have difficulty with the course because of that.

Yes, I know, the Hacker thesis maintains you don’t need calculus so everything is wonderful–all most people need to know is arithmetic according to the late Lynn Arthur Steen who is mentioned in this article:

[Steen] advocated a more practical quantitative literacy, with the selective use of algebra and the opportunity for students to apply elementary skills such as arithmetic, percentages, and ratios to real-world data in order to understand issues like global warming, the price of gas, or college tuition. He also recognized arithmetic’s important role in the fields of science, engineering, and technology.

OK, then.  In arguendo–as lawyers like to say–if all most people need is arithmetic let’s make sure arithmetic is taught correctly in K-6. If it were, Hacker and company would see more students proficient with percents, fractions and ratios. As it is, the number of students proficient in such skills varies and in some cases (I would even say “many”) depends on what they are taught by parents, tutors or learning centers such as Sylvan, Kumon and Huntington and the like.

This argument that less than 25% of Americans actually use math at work is a red herring. The job of teachers is to prepare students for careers they may choose. Algebra is a key course for future STEM majors and professionals. And last time I checked (full disclosure: I didn’t interview more than a dozen engineers), those in STEM careers needed some fluency in basic algebra. Some of them even use differential equations.


2 thoughts on “If You Say So, Dept.

  1. “…gaping mismatch between mathematics curricula and the needs and reality of the working world.”

    No, the real world of getting an engineering degree requires at least a differential equations course. Are those institutions and professors wrong – overruled by educational pedagogues? What would happen to those “engineers” who didn’t get to that level? They would be called technicians and end up with a lower salary. If you’re getting paid engineering wages and not using college-level skills, then you better keep quiet about it. You won’t help those coming up the salary pipeline and you will be setting yourself up to be pushed down or laid off.

    One of the first engineering courses that all have to take is statics and dynamics. If you can’t (at least) do calculus, then you will flunk out. You may not end up doing calculus day to day in your job, but you darn well need it for a proper engineering degree and understanding of what you’re learning. You can dumb down an engineering degree, but that would catch up to many in the form of dumbed down salaries. BTW, I can’t imagine hiring and paying engineering wages to those who can’t analyze a technical paper with all of those, you know, squiggly lines, in it.

    “A growing number of education experts are calling for long-overdue adjustments to college and K-12 mathematics—especially to secondary math and the traditional algebra-to-calculus course sequence that schools have followed for decades.”

    They learned this from a hands-on discovery process that confirmed what they wanted to believe. Besides being completely wrong and thinking that their rote-learned pedagogical turf is more important than content and skills heavy engineering professionals, the real world doesn’t work like that. Lower requirements will create different degree levels and lower salaries. The losers will be those who admit that they really don’t use the skills from their college classes.


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