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2013 December 5

Unconcern at Berkeley about math education

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:08
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On Tuesdays I buy the New York Times (in hard copy) to get the Science Times section, but I often read other parts as well, since they are sitting around on the breakfast room table as I eat.  I was struck by one quote I saw this morning:

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the liberal Economic Policy Institute and a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, said he put little stock in the PISA results. He said educators and academics should “stop hyperventilating” about international test rankings, particularly given that students are already graduating from college at higher rates than can be absorbed by the labor market.

(online as  American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests).

I don’t know Rothstein, but I’m not surprised at a law school “fellow” being worried about over-production of  graduates—law schools have been producing many more lawyers than any sane society could absorb for decades. (And generally making their students take on far more debt than honest work would allow them to repay—perhaps he is in favor of students not having enough math to understand compound interest.)

He also has not been trying to teach engineering majors who can barely do algebra—”graduating from college” is no longer a sign of competence in math, if it ever was.  Unlike many, I’m not overly concerned with the standing of the average students relative to their counterparts in other countries.  The average American has never been noted for intelligence or wisdom.  I believe it was H.L. Mencken who said “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

What I am more worried about is the shrinking number of students at the top levels.  Again from the New York Times article:

In the United States, just 9 percent of 15-year-olds scored in the top two levels of proficiency in math, compared with an average of 13 percent among industrialized nations and as high as 55 percent in Shanghai, 40 percent in Singapore, and 17 percent in Germany and Poland.

We may not need huge numbers of scientists and engineers (probably not as many as the NSF and STEM educators would like to have people believe), but we do need for them to be good at their jobs.  The American education system is not succeeding in producing sufficient numbers of highly capable people in STEM fields (though more than enough marginally competent ones).

Getting a few more, or even a lot more, students to be “college-ready” or to “graduate from college” is not going to help much—particularly if it comes at the expense of cutting standards so that the colleges are flooded with marginally competent students and honors courses are eliminated in favor of remedial course (which seems to be the trend at state-supported schools).

I don’t have a simple solution to offer—perhaps there is no solution in a culture that despises math and worships athletes.  As long as basketball and football coaches are the most highly paid employees in academia, I have no hope for improvement.

What could be done, by those colleges who have not indebted the next two generations to pay for unneeded football stadiums? Maybe having admissions officers who cared more about academic strength and less about extracurriculars, sports, and diversity would help a little.  Having competitive scholarships that were tied to high performance, rather than just need-based grants? Having endowment funds that could only be spent on teaching honors courses or undergraduate research? Reversing grade inflation, so that the average grade was once again a C, rather than an A (so that the students at the top were distinguishable by  their records from the run-of-the-mill students)?

High schools could help by making honors courses and AP courses really challenging, and not just playgrounds for students whose parents think they ought to be there.  Eliminating social promotion, so that a high school diploma means that a student can take college courses without remedial classes and not just that they managed to keep a seat warm for 4 years without being expelled.

I guess I’m just dreaming here—I see no indication that anyone except a few curmudgeons like me has any interest in raising standards.  The rallying cry is “college for everyone”, which requires putting a lot of educational resources into getting those who aren’t really capable of the work up to a level where they can appear marginally competent.  The US gave up years ago on providing training for those who could benefit the most from it (except in sports, of course, the real religion of the US).

1 Comment »

  1. Two observations and a suggestion…

    First, I have dozens of High School students that moved here within the past year or three from China and Korea (and elsewhere). One thing that I know about school in Asia is that they simply do a lot more. Korean students have school 6 days a week. In China, my students mostly say they had 60 hours of school work per week (regular classes, tutorial times, outside school classes). It is simply no wonder why might perform better on a standardized test.

    Secondly, as an engineer I worked with other engineers with the backgrounds mentioned above. To think that all that schooling results in a better engineer is wrong. I think sending a 15 year old to schooling for 60 hours per week is truly a race to the bottom.

    Suggestion: until high school grades are stopped being used for university entrance, the status quo will remain. We cannot assign challenging tasks with assessment, for fear of our top students’ grades dropping. A student can’t attempt a super challenging task, learn a bunch but get 80% on it, because she is being compared to other students that don’t do difficult tasks and get 96%. (Or what I try to do: assign a challenging task and give feedback, but don’t grade it). The double whammy to this is that our assessments based on acceptable standards are likely too easy. Perhaps the test (questions or tasks, whatever) are not easy, but kids can part mark themselves to high achievement. I think one of the best approaches in high school is to treat grades with more honesty in what they reflect. I like the idea of mastery. What we want are students that master every topic. For example, if every standard was graded on a binary or 3 point scale, then the ability for a student to show some understanding should be the de facto 50% pass. To move up from 50% or pass, you have to master the topic or objective. Why a student can make consistent mistakes and misunderstandings and still get B, without ever doing something completely correct, is a mystery to me.

    Comment by Doug Smith (@bcphysics) — 2013 December 5 @ 11:08 | Reply

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