The movie “Hidden Figures”, about three African American women who were instrumental in the space program in the 60’s, has garnered lots of “STEM is not just for white guys” types of promotions. (See this, or this or this. There are many more.) Also there are many blog posts by various progressivist/educationist types, praising the movie.

It seems strange to me then that in all this “conversation” about the themes of the film, there is nary a mention that the three women rose to their prominence based on the traditional math education they received. This is the type of math teaching, prominent in the era the women were from, that is so derided and despised by math reformers and given blame for “failing thousands of students”.

Is there an unstated progressivist narrative going on? How does it go again? The women were interested/gifted/talented in math and science to begin with and thus were destined to succeed in it no matter how it was taught? Have I got the right words? Or am I missing something?

I ask this because of this excerpt from an article in The Atlantic about the film:

“Math, in that sense, is in Hidden Figures a tool of meritocracy. It is a symbol of the power of education (chalk being handed from one person to another is a recurring motif in the film), but it is also, more broadly, a metaphor for a world that could be so much better if we would just let everyone, equally, have a say in its improvement. Math’s equations double, in Hidden Figures, as a hope for equality.”

I agree. Interesting that the reform math that passes as education and brings people flocking to NCTM and other conferences to adulate various math reformer as if they were rock stars actually penalizes the very people the reformers/progressivists think they are helping.

Stop me if I’ve said this before: The inequity arises from those who can afford to do so paying for the appropriate education offered at learning centers and the like. And those who cannot afford it being deprived of what they need.

OK. I’ll stop.

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I have not seen the movie but it seems to me that the story (not necessarily the movie, but the larger story it tells) is about the emancipatory power of traditional education — how it provides those who might otherwise have been disadvantaged in society with ownership of a heritage of skills and knowledge that opens doors and breaks down barriers to success. Some have tried to make it about colour and/or gender, but it strikes me it is about that which transcends these categories.

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Traditional education pushes and values incremental mastery of skills along with understanding. That still happens in high school AP Calculus tracks, but not in K-6. Facts are “mere” and skills are “rote.” Add to that the use of social promotion and full inclusion where curicula like Everyday Math “trust the spiral” and assume that kids will learn when they are ready. Meanwhile, STEM parents and those who know better hide the tracking at home and ensure mastery of basic skills so that their kids are ready for a proper algebra I class in 8th grade. CCSS has now officially made K-6 a NO-STEM zone (PARCC actually states this) and educators claim that students can catch up by taking summer classes or doubling up in math in high school. Right. I had to work with my math brain son in K-6, but didn’t have to do a thing for his traditional AP Calculus track high school classes. Not a thing.

Is math a natural learning process in K-6? Does reform math provide a better “understanding” base for faster improvement later on? There is absolutely no proof of that. In fact, after 20+ years of reform “understanding” math, quite the opposite is shown – that if one fails to get on the advanced (algebra in 8th grade) math track, then any sort of STEM career is all over. I got to high school calculus in the old traditional K-6 days with absolutely no help from my parents. I had algebra I in 8th grade followed by geometry, algebra II, trig, and calculus. What’s different now? K-6. The women in the movie would have a much more difficult time of it now.

CCSS officially increases the academic gap. Parents who make up the difference at home and with tutors hide this systemic K-6 failure and those educational pedagogues never, never ask us parents what we had to do at home even though it would be a very simple task. (All of my son’s STEM friends had help outside of school.) They just claim that their process works, point to our kids as examples, and then blame the other kids or claim that they just need more hands-on real world engagement. They do not understand the importance of pushing and nightly individual success on homework problem sets. That’s the fundamental problem I see with the students I tutor. They don’t value homework. When you get to college, it’s ALL about the P-sets. My son stays up all night to finish them if he has to. This is likewise true for programming classes. It’s ALL about doing everything you can to finish your individual (not group) program with no errors. THAT is where true understanding is achieved. Back when I taught college math and CS, it was NEVER about engagement or any sort of group or class work. It was about the hard, individual work put into P-sets and programs. Success on homework and tests REALLY helps engagement, not in-class group work that does nothing for grades.

In this age where we can’t have any sane, fact-based discussion on health care choices, let alone understand even what insurance means, I have no hope for change in education, especially when some claim that it’s a liberal/conservative issue. Some of us are actually unaffiliated and quite willing and able to separate issues from political party ownership. I push educational choice, but that apparently means that I believe in all sorts of other baggage. Some people alter reality to fit their simplistic view of the world. You can’t argue with these people. We can only appeal to parents who want to understand what’s going on.

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Another point the critics miss about this movie revolves around the solution to one of the problems the main character resolves about getting their astronaut back into orbit. In one particular part of the movie, the “computer” along with the NASA physicists and scientists, are trying to develop a new mathematical problem solving sequence, i.e. develop an answer to a problem that has been developed yet (sound familiar?). Turns out the answer rests with an ancient mathematical procedure, which had been developed hundreds of years before. And let’s not forget how this same human computer was also asked to review the computations manually when it was found that the new and shiny machine computers were spitting out the wrong data.

So the old math has been used to send humans into space, build the pyramids and create steam engines which connected our vast regions creating united countries and communities. And what has the new math done for us lately?

And Robert…go and see the movie. It’s a story that has been shamefully kept under wraps for far too long.

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Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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