Monday, July 30, 2012

The latest education controversy? Algebra!

Let's look at another "debate" that some of our "elites" are demanding


Is there too much of it? Heckuva op ed there New York Times.

This debate matters. 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. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

Yes becasue too much of a critical form of math is what's crippling the US education system.

And writer and social scientist do not make one a good example of a math intensive field.

I say critical because algebra is at the root of the understanding of the symbolic nature of mathematics. With algebra equations can become fully abstracted. It's no longer 5+6 = ? but the relation of X + Y = Z.

Algebra is a linchpin that forms the base for all the forms of "higher mathematics" and is the root of all problem solving math. It bridges between arithmetic and calculus, trigonometry, geometry, proofs and probability/statistics.

I have sympathy to taking issues with schools wasting money and having frivolous requirements. And I would prefer people to have more choice in what classes they take.

I also acknowledge that math is difficult for many and that much of it has no function later in life. However, cutting algebra for high-school seems to be the last math class you'd want to ditch.

If you want to streamline math requirements for those that don't feel they need it, take out prob and stats and the trigonometry. Paring down Calculus goes without saying.

Even Mr. A hates it: "If we just dumb everything down enough, we'll be able to say everyone is an A student and graduated high school! Won't that be great ,think of their self-esteem."

And then we get to the reason this "emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York" has his eyes on Algebra.

Quantitative literacy clearly is useful in weighing all manner of public policies, from the Affordable Care Act, to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, to the impact of climate change. Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.

I'm not sure I grok how knowingly reducing mathematical rigor would increase understanding of very opaque subjects that have a heavy mathematical basis.

Call me cynical but it seems almost as if he wants to remove the foundation of mathematical understanding "how formulas work" and replace it with a more route recall of "where various numbers come from".

Here's the thing, without a firm grasp of the former the latter is meaningless.

This is why the author suggested replacing teaching of algebra with prob and stats. One problem... and one that Mr. A gets "I wonder if he realizes that you need algebra to do a lot of that?"

Yeah, that's like trying to teach someone Compressible Flow instead of Gas Dynamics.
Or trying to teach them Calculus instead of Algebra.

And it woldn't be Mr. A if he didn't get in his normal digs: "I love how he cites opinions from teachers in Tennessee and West Virginia, too."

And when pointed out that California schools suck too: "California's not really that bad, as long as you aren't in one of the 95% hispanic parts."

So yeah, you get that from Mr. A. Also recall that the public school system is his model of how healthcare should work in the US.

Interestingly Mr. A actually points out what's so offensive about this article.
It’s not hard to understand why Caltech and M.I.T. want everyone to be proficient in mathematics. But it’s not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar. Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better.

Emphasis added. And Mr. A actually nails it pointing out the patronizing attitude the writer must have to "think liberal arts types are dumb as dirt."

This would be like saying engineering types don't need read all those dusty old plays or memorize a bunch of pointless years, and besides their mathy minds would be incapable of understanding such things, best to leave them be.

Let's go back to the idea of "diversifying education standards". Okay why just limit ourselves to math? Why not have it so students could avoid taking History or Literature or Science classes to concentrate on which areas they work best at?

That's not really sarcasm. The idea of academic concentration is perfectly cromulent. There is a very valid issue to argue concentration versus "well rounded".

You think there's too much focus on Subject X? Well what about Subject Y? This guy doesn't actually want a debate about education requirements. He wants to gut mathematical course-load and have students take statistics classes without actually understanding what they're doing.

All because it makes him feel better. Since more people with more A's is a good thing. Who cares how they got them.

The question becomes why he doesn't look into the crippling effects of forcing students to take english of history classes that they would flounder in and never use. Ah but he does have ideas for history:

I hope that mathematics departments can also create courses in the history and philosophy of their discipline, as well as its applications in early cultures.

Once again, compromise only goes one way. Familiar, eh?

The problem comes in presenting it as something that math must negotiate. The onus is on mathematics departments to change their styles and teaching.

Again you see someone opine on a subject that they know nothing about and demand a debate on said subject.

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