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Sunday, July 27, 2014

NY Times obsesses about math again; every kid loses

I have a confession to make. I did graduate admissions in computer science for more than 25 years. The first thing I looked for was the applicant’s math GRE score. I eliminated anyone under 96th percentile. (Also, to add to my confession. I majored in Mathematics in college.) 

Why did I use this measure? Because ability to reason mathematically is an indicator of rigorous thinking, exactly the same kind of reasoning needed in Computer Science. Does that mean I needed my students to know mathematics? Not at all. Mathematics never came up in any way in our PhD program.

I mention this because there seems to be a national obsession with teaching mathematics and with math test scores. This is especially true when one reads the New York Times. Here are two articles published just this week:

Don’t Teach Math, Coach It

Why Do Americans Stink at Math?

The first article is by a math professor who wishes his kid liked math as well as he likes baseball. It has no business being in the Times except that the Times seems a bit obsessed with math. The second article is really about how to teach better but the math panic headline is obviously exciting stuff to the Times.

Here is one from a month ago:

Math Under Common Core Has Even Parents Stumbling

Naturally the Times draws the wrong conclusion from their own article. Instead of realizing that Common Core math is out of the scope of even the parents of their own children, it goes on about teaching methods so that kids will do better at Common Core.

And the of course, we have the real stuff:

American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests

There is an international math competition going on and the Times wants the U.S. to win. We also want to win the bobsled competition.

It is time to be honest about what is really going on. Why is math important?

It isn’t.

(Now all the math teachers can tell me I am crazy, as they usually do.)

Why are math test scores important? All you need to know is here:

Harvard College announced Thursday that it has accepted 2,023, or 5.9 percent, of 34,295 students applying for admission to the Class of 2018.

I didn’t really want to read 300 applications for Computer Science when I did admissions. So I took the easy way out. I relied on a simple but reliable metric. If you do well on an absurd math test, then it means you will work hard and can think logically, both of which are important qualities for a Computer Science PhD student.

Harvard cannot read 35,000 applications (nor can Yale, Princeton etc.) So they need test scores. The test makers cannot read millions of well thought out answers to complex questions, so they need multiple choice tests. No one needs any of these tests to be about mathematics  (I assume you the admissions people, don’t know algebra or calculus either.)

But, mathematics has a really good property. There are correct answers. Ask applicants what we should do about ISIS or the Ukraine and you can’t use multiple choice tests to judge the responses. Someone would have to actually read student’s answers. And there would be no “right” answer.  2 +2 really does equal 4. So math wins. And multiple choice tests win. And all our kids lose.

Our kids learn to hate school (because math is boring to most.) They lose self-esteem (because they “aren’t good at math.”)  And, what schools teach continues to be irrelevant to the real needs of children.

How about instead of math we teach how to get along with other people? How abut teaching personal financial management. Teach kids how to get a job. Teach them   to learn real skills (pick any of 1000). Teach them how to raise a child or  how to eat properly. Teach them how to negotiate or how to speak well, or how to plan well.

Ok, enough. Math will win every time for the reasons I stated above and the New York Times (undoubtedly populated by editors who majored in in English and were “bad at math” will continue to make the country hysterical about why Finland or China have better math scores than we have. I have only one question. Are kids (or adults) happier in those countries?

Silly question. Who cares about that?

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