Thoughts on Proposed National Math Standards

National Education Secratary Arnie Duncan & President Obama
National Education Secratary Arnie Duncan & President Obama
I’ve been studying the overview of the new math standards proposed by the American Conference of Governors. I know there is a big push to get more kids prepared in K-12 school to enter academic programs in college toward careers in the hard sciences, but I don’t think requiring all kids to follow these guidelines is the right way to do it. Being more of a left-libertarian, particularly when it comes to education, I don’t like the idea of “high stakes” standards that require (rather than recommend) what you learn and when, backing it up with coercion and serious consequences (like failure to graduate) if you don’t.

Practically speaking, there are so many wide-ranging disciplines and associated bodies of knowledge these days that you have to allow kids to be able to explore areas of interest (prior to going to college), rather than fill their class schedule with required classes that may not be consistent with their own educational or career trajectory. But I suppose that these proposed national standards are no more directive of kid’s school curriculum than the current voluminous state standards they are intended to influence and even replace.

I suspect I am in a minority of parents and other adults that that are opposed to “standardized” education, particularly when those standards are applied (enforced rather than recommended) as “OSFA” (one size fits all). Most adults that I know accept the conventional wisdom that all kids should learn pretty much the same thing and that the state and its experts should be able to dictate the bulk of what kids will learn in school.

So why am I so concerned on this to join a currently small number of people opposed to this OSFA standardization of school curricula?

Well first, to confess my bias (always a good thing to do, particularly when discussing controversial issues), both my kids eventually found conventional public school to be an inappropriate educational environment for them (and their parents reluctantly agreed). The most dramatic issues seemed to be with math classes. (See my earlier pieces on “Fuck Math” and “Tutoring Geometry” chronicling both my kids hitting the wall with mathematics and subsequently transitioning to homeschooling, with their parent’s trepidation but assent.

Now I was a kid who always enjoyed mathematics, including my high school algebra, geometry and analysis classes, and later college calculus, linear algebra, Boolean algebra and the rest. So in trying to help both my kids get excited about their more abstract math classes, I brought all my knowledge and enthusiasm to bear in that effort, including tutoring my daughter for an hour most every school night in ninth grade to help her get a “C” in geometry. But both of them (so passionate about so much else out there in the big world) could find no interest and had no patience for abstract math.

Beyond this personal experience I have heard and read anecdotes of other kids who do okay in their other classes but fail their high school math, putting themselves in jeopardy of not graduating. Kids in this situation with parents with enough resources can get tutors to get them through it somehow, like I tutored my daughter in geometry. For other kids, algebra or geometry is the straw that breaks the camels back and can lead to their dropping out of school. (I confess I have not seen statistics on this, I have only anecdotes.)

So in response to my thinking, people I know say, “Kids should know some basic algebra and geometry! Even if they don’t go into careers in science or math they will need it.” I am not convinced of this. Between high school and college, I took nine higher/abstract math classes, virtually none of which I have used in my life, including my 24 years of work as a computer programmer, systems analyst and business analyst.

I never had a math class where I learned how to create and manage a budget… now that would be pretty universally useful!

If I had gone the path of working in the aerospace industry (and maybe helped program guidance systems for our new generation of “smart” weapons) then that entire body of math knowledge would have come into play. But I chose not to (for ethical and career reasons). Ironically, the one area of math that proved most useful in my data analysis work was what was called at the time “set theory”, that I happened to learn in middle school.

Getting back to the standards, this whole push for more math, is in my opinion another round of the “Sputnik Syndrome” of the late 1950s when the Soviet Union managed to “beat us” in getting the first satellite up and in orbit around the earth. Today, once again our country’s leaders are feeling anxiety that we will “lose the competition” with other countries to America’s detriment if we don’t produce more highly skilled mathematicians and scientists.

Accepting for now the efficacy of this goal (which could and is argued elsewhere) I don’t think mandatory OSFA math standards is the way to achieve it! There are at least three key reasons:

1. You frustrate otherwise inquisitive students (like my two kids) and can drive them away from school and put up barriers to their graduation.

2. You can waste the learning time of other kids (like me) who might even like the abstract math but are not interested in careers in math or science and could better spend their time “deep learning” in areas of keen interest.

3. For the kids that are really into math and/or see themselves on a math/science career trajectory, you probably end up “dumbing down” their math classes, to accommodate all the other kids who can’t do it and/or don’t want to be there but are regardless required to do so.

I know we have gotten into trouble in our schools before trying to “track” kids into “college prep” or “vocational” paths. Stereotypes around gender, race and socio-economic status have managed to come inappropriately into play in this tracking.

But I think as a society, if we really want to produce more truly skilled science and math “geeks”, we need to figure out a way to let kids and their parents, with the advice of school counselors and other mentors, choose educational paths with much fewer mandatory OSFA requirements. That fraction of kids really into math and science can go to special “science academies” where they can plunge into these bodies of knowledge in an environment of like-minded enthusiasm and deep learning.

Young people like my own two kids can choose other paths for say their high school years where they can focus on game design, business, or journalism, or whatever; where they don’t have to spend their time taking algebra, geometry and other abstract math classes.

In business and industry, gone are the days of selling everybody a different color Model “A” Ford, as long its black. Mass production has been replaced by niche marketing. “Push” production has been replaced by Lean manufacturing which builds what is asked for by consumers rather than a generic OSFA product that the advertising department attempts to convince everyone they just have to have it.

Why can’t we bring this more customer focus to our educational institutions and make them more “learner focused”?

I think this is a recipe for developing and leveraging more of the talents of the next generation, including identifying and optimally training our best young mathematicians and scientists. There are so many career and knowledge paths in our complex and multi-faceted contemporary society.

I say let’s lose this whole Henry Ford assembly line approach to national educational standards in favor of perhaps national recommendations for many optimal paths of learning, depending on the interests and abilities of our individual young people. That way maybe we can stop endlessly “reforming” and start profoundly “transforming” our approach to education.

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