Wednesday, August 22, 2012

let's stop algebraic suffering in america!

aLfRedO tRifF

is algebra necessary? andrew hacker thinks not.
A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. 
i will not get into the importance of algebra, which conveys a specific know-how of meta-numeric abstraction that pertains to operations and relations of all kinds in science, which is why algebra is an extension and generalization of arithmetic. 

functions? the hell with it. equations? what for? algebra is unbearably painful:
Why do we subject American students to this ordeal?
"ordeal"? is algebra difficult "in itself", anymore than, say, history? granted, if one hates history learning it can be an ordeal. but as any student knows, struggling has a necessary positive side. there 's nothing closer to loving math than struggling with it and getting it.

there is nothing "intrinsic" about algebra that makes it harder than any other subject. we see it that way because we've become math-challenged. why? math takes, well, effort, something many students (and teachers) today are not interested in for reasons they don't understand. 

hacker senses a dead end, but is not flexible enough to admit his math phobia has nothing to do with math.
It’s true that students in Finland, South Korea and Canada score better on mathematics tests. But it’s their perseverance, not their classroom algebra, that fits them for demanding jobs.  
algebra, history, philosophy; take any subject. discounting sheer aptitude, isn't it perseverance what makes a student score better at a given subject? following his own idea, what hacker should ask is why american students don't persevere. the reason our education sucks is not underfunded schools, not mediocre teachers, not archaic methodologies, not poor learning environments. it's mathematics!
The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason. 
who are these educators? (we'll never know). now we're ready for hacker's cuckoo case:

1. algebra is a required course in high school and college.
2. studying algebra is an "ordeal"
3. students suck at algebra.
4. students suck at algebra because of 2.
therefore, algebra shouldn't be a required course in high school and college.

care for one more? making math mandatory can actually hide & warp young talent:
Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower.
no wonder american trails the world in math & science:
In general knowledge of mathematics, American 12th graders did better than those in only two countries, Cyprus and South Africa. Students in four countries, Italy, Russia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, performed at the same level as those in the United States. Fourteen countries outperformed America, led by the Netherlands and Sweden. The results were similar for science. The advanced mathematics assessment was given to students who had taken or were taking precalculus, calculus or Advanced Placement calculus, and the advanced physics assessment to students who had either taken or were taking physics or Advanced Placement physics. In advanced math, 11 countries outperformed the United States and no country performed more poorly; in physics, 14 countries did better than the United States and none did worse.

at this point you realize hacker is not a subtle thinker.

hacker is not necessarily arguing that math is not an important subject. all he is saying is that it shouldn't be required. never mind that being a decisively important branch of human knowledge, a reliable educational system shouldn't leave it up to young students whether they take -or not- algebra. they hate it now, but  may love and/or need it tomorrow. what then? mathematics is a knowledge-cumulative enterprise, i.e, the more you know the more you're ready to know.

i don't doubt that at some point we'll hacker algebra (we're down that path already, which is why hacker's article appears in the new york times opinion section). here is the scenario: to make our students happy, we'll make math an elective. only science students and nerds will take it, but since math was -already- not required in high school, they will perform much worse than they do today. it doesn't matter. we will import chinese, korean, indian, finnish and russian mathematicians to do the hard work for us. having spent their youth miserably studying math and science, they will be more than eager to exchange their pain for our half-witted, self-induced, math-challenged limbo (all the way to the bank).


Anonymous said...

This guy is nuts.

The Mike said...

Call it "algae bra" and dress it up with saucy pictures. We will see a sudden rise in earnest interest.

Why such a sexist response? Because the women already get it, having long outstripped the young men with their prowess in just about every domain.

Game. Set. Match.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Triff. You want us to love math. Me I hate math but its my fault.

Do you know of any good tutors?
Bert Soto

Unknown said...

They should also remove language.ER

Alfredo said...

I read this comical notion of making algebra an elective and was very amused. First of all, math in public schools is already an elective, using the mile-wide loopholes in elective selection which students in America use to get out of any subject that demands work. Second, we already use Russian, Chinese and Indians to do all the heavy intellectual lifting at the end of the line anyway. 'Why bother.'..most kids will think.
I do, however, take offense to your comment (not sure if were being sarcastic, I suspect so) about kids in Russia, India, China and so forth....ruining their youths studying math and science ? Is the science/math proclivity already a pejorative in this essay ?
Let me tell you a real life stat about math/science grads. I attended a graduation ceremony a couple of years ago in Upenn for the Computer Science Dept. A friend of mine (Bulgarian) was getting his PhD. I also noticed the entire PhD and Graduate-level classmates were all from India, China, Russia (and eastern EU in general)making up the majority. When I say 'the majority' I mean, there was only one American national in the entire class. The rest where there on student visas with their entire schooling paid for by UPenn. Not a penny paid for by their parents and no student debt. So much for waster youth.
These kids don't waste their youths studying math/science. They invest in it like the adults that they are. But 'adulthood' in not something akin to an american college student. In fact, in this country we have a seriously protracted adolescence and this author wants even more of it.
I was comforted by your thoughts on how this author automatically labels mathematics as an intrinsically horrible experience root canal work . What a mind job hacker tries out on the reader !!!
The culture of the US shapes the desire and will of its youth. I was raised in the cuban/russian scientific progressivism and I had a natural inclination to believe in the power of science/math. That served me well when I 'elected' to take my Algebra classes at 12 years old. After finishing Pre-calc at 14 I wondered why there was a huge vacuum of interest in the public school system to encourage me to go further. I did not end up an unhappy youth that studied math/science ...I relish the level of abstraction that those classes opened up in my mind ! Thank you professors, for the time you took in teaching a curious boy who just wanted to learn it for the hell of it.
...and what ever happened to doing it because it IS difficult ?

Alfredo Triff said...

the mike, i love your sense of humor.

Thanks, erwin-can.

what ever happened to doing it because it IS difficult?

indeed, alfredo.

remove language... yes, twitter rules.

Feminista said...

Very good post I'm sharing with my colleagues.

Anonymous said...

I love math and learned to love it the hard way. Only math taught me the concept of understanding, so far in 3 rd grade I had only been required to learn by hard the tables. Learning the tables by heart was so difficult. I knew it at night, I knew it in the very early morning in my mom's car, and I would forget them as soon as I would set foot in school grounds. In fifth grade, struggling with some math subject, my sister already in university sat with me at the table, looked into my eyes and sweetly told me, "this is not something you can learn by heart, this is something you have to understand". This was the first time in my life that I grasp the difference between the two concepts, remembering VS understanding. My sister sat with me, - with her godly reasoning -. After such, arriving to the correct answer was never to be again a matter of chance, but something so dependable that I could hold on to it. Math is a dependable friend that gives you the code and is willing to be known inside out. That notion of satisfaction when it's problems have been smoothed out, can be derived from very little other wheres. Yet I could understand, that before I met "it", before I know we could communicate, I was deep in stress and doubt, and most people I know feel the same way. Most people I know, never met the most dependable being there was to ever be.

Sean Boisselle said...

Thanks for the math article Prof.! I find myself needing some math inspiration.

Those scores really say something about the national identity of America. We don't even have a national identity anymore. The melting pot has melted to the point where the metal of the pot itself has liquified and quenched the flame of culture. Few take a hard stand against anything. Most people base their actions on opinions, not firm conviction. The days are gone of our mothers and our grandmothers, the hardy ancestors of this nation.

Now our national identity, if we have any at all, is guided by shiny flashing lights, which burn out as fast as they illumine. So we are left in a darkness, guided by corporate campaigns for whiter teeth and tastier poisons and cars with five all-new buttons - for a limited time.

Few desire to put in the effort anymore. We want it like the TV commercials: quick and easy. This is the paradox facing us.

1. Everyone wants money and prestige.
2. Everyone wants the highest amount of pleasure, ease and comfort.

But there is a third part to this paradox, and possibly the most fundamental to knowing its secret.

3. To get money, prestige, pleasure, ease or comfort, you must sacrifice money, prestige, pleasure, ease, or comfort.

Sometimes you have to sacrifice food. Sacrifice sleep. Sacrifice sex. Otherwise you are only a servant to your biological whims, and are not worthy of being called a descendant of human ancestry.

This is why the economy is garbage. We have a far greater amount of pure consumers than pure producers.

I for one, am choosing to "Do the math" so I can be of some service to society and my ancestors who worked through so much blood and sweat and sorrow. I am taking intermediate algebra this semester and plan to go all the way to calc 2 or 3 and then beyond.

Thanks again for the inspiration. Now can I apply this as extra credit to my algebra class? ;)

Llompart said...

Triff, I propose that the answer is not making algebra an elective, but rather making an introduction to philosophy a mandatory prerequisite. I say this because while I used to despise the practice of math, it occurred to me during your philosophy class what math really was. It occurred to me that math was a way to find truth and discern what is and what cannot be. So in short if we can make students understand what math really is, a way to find truth and clarity in the world, rather than a set of arbitrary rules that are done a certain way merely because that is how they were taught, then perhaps will US students appreciate the end result of the "ordeal" that is algebra, calculus, physics etc.