If At First You Don’t Succeed, Lower Your Expectations

Rant time. The education system in this country is fucking terrible. A lot of people blame the teachers but it’s not their fault. They are, after all, victims of the education system themselves who were taught by previous victims of the education system. The blame goes to the policy makers who believe the solution to every embarrassing statistic is to dumb down the curriculum:

In his new book The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, political scientist Andrew Hacker proposes replacing algebra II and calculus in the high school and college curriculum with a practical course in statistics for citizenship (more on that later). Only mathematicians and some engineers actually use advanced math in their day-to-day work, Hacker argues—even the doctors, accountants, and coders of the future shouldn’t have to master abstract math that they’ll never need.

You see? Math is hard so we should dumb it down. In a rather ironic twist, Hacker proposes replacing algebra II and calculus with statistics and statistics is part of what’s fueling the deterioration of the education system. Statistics itself isn’t bad but when it’s placed in the hands of policy makers it because a weapon of mass destruction. Hacker, probably unknowingly, makes this point perfectly:

Unlike most professors who publicly opine about the education system, Hacker, though an eminent scholar, teaches at a low-prestige institution, Queens College, part of the City University of New York system. Most CUNY students come from low-income families, and a 2009 faculty report found that 57 percent fail the system’s required algebra course. A subsequent study showed that when students were allowed to take a statistics class instead, only 44 percent failed.

His argument is based on statistics surrounding student failure rates. An intelligent person would look at such statistics and try to investigate the causes (there are likely numerous interacting causes involved here). But Hacker, like most policy makers, isn’t an intelligent person. He looks at the statistic and decides the only option is to make the hard classes easier. The problem with his attitude is that it can only lead to one outcome in the end: Idiocracy.

I’m not going to lie, math kicked my ass in school and college. Young me would have loved to hear that algebra II was being replaced by something far easier. But old me understands the value of higher level math. While I don’t use it in my daily life it taught me logic (as in reasoning, not as in a word to throw around when I’m losing an Internet argument and have nothing to resort to other than telling the other person they’re not logical), which I do use every day. And that’s the point. Many subjects themselves aren’t obviously useful in our day to day lives. But they do teach us how to learn, which is tremendously useful. Without understanding how to learn we’re relegated to memorizing information so we can regurgitate it later. In fact that’s the state of education in this country in a nutshell: memorize information so you can regurgitate it on a standardized test.

2 thoughts on “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Lower Your Expectations”

  1. I use algebra every day. How else do you convert flows and pressures into gross vs net horsepower and heat loss?

    I derived my own formulas with calculus to predict horsepower draw, material removal rates and work performance for products we sell too. Then I worked them backwards to design a system that would get the most work done by using the maximum amount of the (fixed and limited) horsepower available.

    I’m not an engineer. But I’m not an idiot either.

    Perhaps “lower” level math classes shouldn’t pencil-whip failing students through. That way they can’t end up failing the harder classes, they won’t be in them in the first place.

  2. A bigger problem is that there’s a standard list of things that everyone should be taught. If we musth have standard tests, it should be one where 50% is an excellent score–show if you learned something but not necessarily the same as everyone else.
    I don’t consider substituting statistics for algebra dumbing down–statistics is likely a more useful skill in modern times. Few people retain any real-world high school math or geometry. As an example, years ago I worked at a new factory where they put the people with better math scores in one department. Out of about 30 of those people I was the only one to use a metric tape measure to quickly calculate the capacity of tanks in liters–other people marked 10 liters on a bucket or weighed 10 kilos, then filled the bucket over and over.

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