You’ve probably seen this before. Someone, probably in their twenties, thinking they are holding their own among a group of highly educated people, prattling on about the uselessness of most college courses and disciplines and the value of a PhD. The group listens politely and after the outburst continues their conversation as if the young orator hadn’t said a word. The young person thinks that they are pretending they didn’t hear the polemic because they didn’t want to hear the truth.
The type of foolishness that one engages in during one’s twenties can be forgiven because of youth, inexperience, and the envy that comes from realizing but not accepting one’s place in society. Fortunately most such people grow up.
But the same thing is occurring with alarming frequency in the field of education in general and math education in particular. This phenomenon may be attributed in part to the ease in which one can air one’s views on internet-based platforms, such as blogs and social media. But such views are also published in so-called peer-reviewed journals, in which the peers have known each other and have been taking in each other’s laundry for years. One reads their polemics in places such as Phi Delta Kappan, the journal of the American Education Research Association (AERA) and various publications of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).
While people who have done legitimate educational research in the field of cognitive science have been critical of what has been written, the people who should be ignored are the ones holding court.
I recently read a piece published by Achieve.org which unequivocally and uncritically supports the Common Core standards. One such piece caught my attention and since the writing of poorly informed and unscientific polemics seems to be the new standard, I thought I would provide a guideline on how to construct such papers, using this particular atrocity.
State that STEM is more than just “technical”. That is, STEM workers include support staff, like lab techs, technical writers, people who don’t necessary know math or science in other words. Using such logic, one can say that the medical profession also includes medical secretaries and custodians, which would give me some relevance in the medical field when I worked as a janitor at the University of Michigan medical school during the summer.
Recent claims that the market for STEM workers is saturated are based upon a narrow definition of STEM. When I advocate for STEM thinking and STEM skills, I have the 4 C’s in mind: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. While I realize some STEM jobs are in higher demand than others and that some sectors are, indeed, saturated, I don’t think most 21st Century employers prefer employees that can’t work together, can’t communicate well, and can’t figure their way out of a paper bag. I suspect market analysis for STEM jobs does not include all the support roles such as technical writers (need physics) or quality assurance (operating coordinate measurement machines). But, as Hacker points out, those skills are not developed by performing tedious math processes, especially those largely performed through a memorized sequence.
Point out that Common Core fixes these problems by leaving out what this author and others of her ilk thinks are tedious and useless (but from which she and others benefitted in their careers). Instead, CC focuses on (wait for it) “deeper learning” like exponential functions, which it pushes down into Algebra 1 when students need considerably more experience with basic algebraic procedure. Having taught exponential functions from a CC-aligned algebra textbook, I decided to leave such lessons until the last part of the year to get to it if I have time.
The problem could be all but fixed if teachers were using materials accurately aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Love them or hate them, CCSS weeds out most of the minimally-extensible, boring, tedious procedures and leave room for explorations and developing numeracy. But the extraneous procedures remain in unaligned texts and are encoded into curricula, leaving teachers with little choice other than to teach them.
As such, I agree with Hacker who wrote “The Math Myth” that Algebra 2 is not only unnecessary for graduating high school but that it is unnecessary altogether given the arcane, and tedious things it teaches that are of questionable use.
I believe most teachers are doing the best they can with sometimes impossible situations. Most explain the procedures before showing students what to do. However, students quickly figure out they can pass tests in the short-term by zoning out during the explanation if they focus on the steps. Hacker points to many examples of boring, tedious procedures that are in traditional textbooks. He argues that it is wrong to require all students to learn those procedures, and I agree with some of his examples.
Ignore that education is about giving students opportunities, not slamming doors shut. Make arguments about the requirement for Algebra 2 to graduate high school being onerous and is preventing students from graduating and ignore that some of the topics that used to be taught in algebra 1 are left out of CC. Also do not say that the CC treatment of algebra 2 similarly waters down what is presented; rather state that it focuses on few topics in more depth. Omit mentioning that such action jeopardizes those who are truly committed to majoring in STEM and that Jason Zimba once remarked that CC does not present a path to AP calculus, nor a path to more selective universities (not to mention to a STEM career).
However, it is difficult to imagine why one would want a sixteen-year-old to make academic decisions that could set him or her back a year or two at college. After all, it is not uncommon for college students to change their majors multiple times. I believe the better idea is to limit topics in high school math to those in the CCSS and connect those topics to thought processes we all use in real life. Some, like Hacker, argue for two tracks: one for calculus and one for statistics. The CCSS balances the two with respect to content, keeping students’ options for both.
Follow these steps and you too can be an education hero–and maybe even be invited to give talks at NCTM! Who knows what the future has in store for you. Goodness knows we know what’s in store for our students.