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Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford think they know How to Fix Our Math Education (NYT, 8/24 Op Ed): “The truth is that different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact.” I think they miss half the point.

Here’s the other half: jobs. Even with an unemployment rate of over 9%, there are plenty of jobs available. My clients are begging for talented candidates with strong math backgrounds. Enhancing math education with practical tools is fine – as far as it goes – but a rigorous math foundation through high school is vital for continued study in the quantitative sciences, and should be encouraged because this is where the jobs are.

Fixing math education must begin in elementary school. Inspiring, motivated primary teachers who also love math will foster that love in their students right from the start. There is a history of math phobia that gets passed among students (and teachers). At the high school level, many students take only the math required to graduate or get into their college of choice – treating it as something to get through that they will never use in “real life”.

These scare tactics steer students away from math, assume abstract thinking is irrelevant, and, perhaps most detrimentally, teach students to avoid anything that seems difficult. Our “real life” is filled with complicated problems – problems that will only be solved by those prepared to tackle the hard stuff, to persevere, and to work to understand the unknown.

Maybe the problem starts with how we teach our teachers and the minimal level of math mastery required of our early educators. For example, the University of Illinois School of Education offers an undergraduate degree in preliminary education that requires only seven credit hours (of 125) in math education.

The current assumption is that basic math is boring and that you can always use a calculator. It’s not enough to know how to calculate a mortgage or how to buy or lease a car. If students don’t have math facts down cold, they won’t advance in math. It’s interesting to note that our Japanese exchange student, a high school junior who excelled in math, had never been allowed to use a calculator in Japan.

According to Garfunkel and Mumford, “It is through real-life applications that mathematics emerged in the past, has flourished for centuries, and connects to our culture now.”

Real life – life where even college graduates are having trouble finding jobs – requires us to prepare our students for the careers that will be available to them in the foreseeable future. In real life, nearly everyone who studies math or its related disciplines such as statistics, operations research, economics, engineering, and computer science will find jobs after college. This is not necessarily true of English majors.

We need to embrace math, to challenge our students to relish the ability to solve difficult problems. Requiring our primary teachers to pursue a strong education in math would boost their own confidence in teaching and inspiring young minds. Most students choose not to continue in math because they lack the foundation, passion, confidence, and interest. This is our failure. Instead of telling our children “you’ll never need math”, we should be telling them that this is where the jobs are.

Math is our future.

 

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20 Responses to “How to Fix Our Math Education”

  1. Rob Culin

    This is critical to our business. So much so that we have been sponsoring for several years a high-school focused match competition that is geared around analytics in the retail business. We invite high-school students, and mentors, around the country to participate in a competition using math and statistics to plan and forecast demand for a common retail product. The final round of competition is on the floor of the Nasdaq in New York, with the winners receiving scholarship money. Please take a look at the link for more info. http://www.demandtecretailchallenge.com/

    Rob

    Rob Culin
    DemandTec, Inc.

    Reply
  2. Karen

    Linda,

    I very strongly support your efforts. I might add a further perspective.

    My son recently graduated with a major in math from a well-known university. I was surprised at his choice of major since he is an avid reader and, in his daydreams, would like to be a writer. His reasoning, when I questioned his choice, was simple. To paraphrase our discussion:

    ‘Studying math is equivalent to studying a foreign language. Once you get the basic concepts you are simply adding more and more to your vocabulary. Once you learn the language you can basically go into any number of fields. You can apply the thinking to whatever you choose. I don’t know yet want I want to do, so this gives me the flexibility to do almost anything I want.’

    A good foundation in math teaches you to think in a highly structured, conceptual way. Like any language, if you learn it as a young child, it is much easier than trying to start when you are older. My kids all started very early – counting, measuring, playing card games. For quite some time, one of them counted ‘ace, two, three, four’.

    As a side note, my son graduated two years ago with several job offers and remains gainfully employed. He can’t say the same for many of his friends.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Karen

    Reply
  3. Dipankar

    As much as I agree with your thoughts, you did not address why part of “Maybe the problem starts with how we teach our teachers and the minimal level of math mastery required of our early educators”. It’s just a matter of money and how we pay our teachers. What percent of top-ranking college graduates think that they will go and become a school teacher? I don’t have the exact statistics on that, but I will bet that number will be low single-digit number. Since this profession does not pay well enough, significant majority of teachers pursue it b/c they could not get anything better, may be most of them were mediocre/sub-average students themselves and feared math/science all their lives, and it becomes a perpetual cycle of mediocrity. Give me the take-home pay that I am making now, and I will love to go back and teach high-school math. Create the right compensation structure and you will attract motivated highly skilled/trained teachers. My father was a school teacher, and I told him when I was in college that I will never become a school teacher. He was upset and asked me what’s wrong with his profession. I said that there was nothing wrong with the profession except that it just pays too little for my taste and survival. Why students flock to the business school compared to science and math, the answer is simple, more potential for higher salary. If money is out there, people will pursue that career. Look at the number of lawyers!! Pay the teachers like the lawyers, you will get tons of competent teachers.

    Reply
  4. Candice

    Isn’t it classic ‘America’ to take the relatively easy way: push through the teachers with less skills, keep math phobia alive, creating less talented teachers, and provide every kindergardener with a basic calculator. UGH!! I still remember my Grandmother standing in the checkout line doing the math in her head before the girl could pull the answer re: how much change from the register. We are missing the big picture! Developing math skills leads to strengthening all kinds of other mental skills that require, as they say, “a brain cell”. We are digging our own economic graves, unfortunately.

    Reply
  5. Phil

    I fully agree with your opinion.

    We need to be numerate as well as literate. I even suggest that we need to be analyterate because other nations’ peoples who are not gifted with material excess and who have not forgotten how to hustle are eating our lunch.

    Everywhere I go in the data mining world I see East Asians and South Asians and relatively few Americans. I see some Europeans and Middle Easterners. We may, as Fareed Zakaria, suggests, not be losing our edge, but if “the rise of the rest” swamps us, what difference does it make?

    A leading indicator is that bright talented ambitious grad students stay in their own countries instead of coming here to study because they can get equivalent educations for much less cost at home.

    When I was in high school many years ago, we were told that we had to beat the Russians to the moon, so Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) were emphasized. Today, we get Barbie dolls that squeak “Math is hard” and have people like Larry Summers, formerly of Harvard, suggest that the hypothesis that women are not as intelligent as men be put to a formal statistical test. He was denounced, and rightfully. Such arrogance!

    Back in the day, my math/science/language curriculum in high school in LA (California schools were # 1 in the nation then) required geometry, algebra, trig, and analytic geometry. A year each of biology, chemistry, physics. I took Spanish for 4 years as a language, and finally learned grammar, which had not been taught properly to me. or maybe I am a late bloomer?

    Not everyone can be an autodidact to the degree that I am, but not keeping up means falling behind, and our experiment in democracy will become very expensive if we cannot afford to fund education properly and harvest tangible rewards.

    My $0.02 + money = a latte somewhere.

    Phil

    Reply
  6. John

    Linda,

    Very interesting indeed.

    Personally, I didn’t get into math until I started applying it to business problems, first through my BSBA studies and then in my MBA. Studying choice modeling and finance in grad school propelled me to new levels of interest in math. Further, computer software, especially Excel, has given me the play ground to learn and test my understanding of math and models. I think the applied side of math education is the missing link.

    Thanks for sharing your point of view.

    Best
    John

    Reply
  7. Weiguo

    Hi, Linda,

    Thanks for your blog. I could not agree more that “Fixing math education must begin in elementary school.”

    My daughter liked math when she was very young. She was proud to tell her friends that math was her favorite subject in the school. But when she grew up, after nine perhaps, I found that things changed. It is not cool to favor math in school, specially for a girl. A math teacher told the class that he did not pass math tests in elementary. You know small things like this do affect students a lot at that age.

    It is good to know you are passionate.

    Regards,
    Weiguo

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    Great article. True that elementary school teachers make the difference. Even the best marketing professionals that get to the highest places have trouble understanding our ROI calcs and methods.

    Reply
  9. Mike

    I appreciate this e-mail, Linda. As a professional in analytics as well as an evening mathematics instructor at local community colleges, I see the divide between mathematical illiteracy with ‘job desire’ and the struggle to find qualified analytical talent daily. My students ask “when will I ever use this?” and I respond with “It’s more relevant now than ever before.”

    Mike

    Reply
  10. Jules (a.k.a. "Mama")

    Linda – Well written and great points. I agree with your assessment – and while I appreciate the leg up having a background in math has provided, it’s sad to me to see the acceptance in the general public that they were simply not cut out to do math. Wrong. We need a big attitude adjustment.
    Julie

    Reply
  11. Forrestt

    Linda,

    Sounds good. I’d like to share some of my thoughts from my experience as a teacher and parent.

    As a teacher I was often asked, “when will I ever use this stuff(math)?” Answer: “Never. If you want to make less than $20,000 a year.”

    As a parent I have seen the math materials my kids bring home. I can almost accept the nonsense “Write a paragraph about how you can use fractions”, but the flat out errors should be grounds for execution with an invoice sent to the family for the bullet used to effect the sentence. When you look at the front of math textbooks there are never less than 20 math “educators” that have either contributed to or reviewed the book. Then there’s the editors and the text adoption committee at the school board. And none of them catch the errors. I really think that math teachers should have degrees in mathematics and not math ed or curriculum/instruction.

    When I was in grad school we could always tell when the end of the semester was approaching because the education majors were carrying their posters to class. (Making a poster was usually their final exam.)

    Reply
  12. Hwei-Lin

    Linda, I agree.

    While our education system should be looking for ways to inspire ALL kids to enjoy math, I find it especially preposterous that my HS freshman who is taking an accelerated AND honors math class gets assigned a mediocre teacher with a reputation for turning smart (Honors) kids AWAY from Math. If kids are already showing an aptitude for math, shouldn’t they be getting the absolute best teachers who can continue to nurture that passion?

    Thank you for sharing.

    Hwei-Lin

    Reply
  13. Dan

    Hi Linda,

    Nice to hear from you and very good comments on math education, a topic dear to my heart.

    I surely agree with what you said. I am a strong proponent of good math skills for our kids, because not only is math a fundamental skill for both career and social lives, but also a great process to learn a lot of skills such as logic reasoning, system approach to problem solving and diligence, etc., that would benefit one for the rest of his/her life. Math is fun, not scary, and math training from early age to high school should not be tailored for kids based on assumptions of what jobs they would do later in life, instead certain math skills should be taught and acquired by all kids.

    I am also appalled that nowadays calculators including expensive and sophisticated ones are required and widely used in classrooms. Because of such dependence, Kids don’t get a chance to learn and strengthen basic math skills, e.g., square-root of a positive number. As parents, we never used calculators in class for all the way till high school graduation. A pen and paper along with our memories were our best tools to learn math, let it be algebra, geometry, trigonometry, or even calculus.

    Something is wrong with math education in this country, and I do believe we don’t have good teachers. Based on first-hand experience, in some public schools, math teachers don’t even understand what they are “teaching”, and in some instances, teachers are just reading page by page in math book. It’s really sad. Unqualified teachers waste precious learning time on kids, weaken kids’ abilities, and eventually damage kids’ futures. If educators can’t recognize or face the problem in our math education, there’s no way for them to provide better education to our kids, and that’s irresponsible of the country’s future at the least.

    Dan

    Reply
  14. Ben

    Dear Linda,

    Thank you very much for your email. I totally agree with you on what you said in the email. And I am too a concerned father of 2 school-age girls.

    It’s interesting to receive your post because we just launched this website (Beijingmath.com) recently, and it has been very well received by Chinese community and schools in US. It provides an environment for those parents who want their kids to try the “Chinese Way” of practicing math.

    Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us.

    Sincerely,
    Ben

    Reply
  15. A. Johnston

    I think you missed the point of the article. They did not say math was unimportant, quite the contrary. They are suggesting math be taught through applications:

    “We believe that studying applied math, like learning living languages, provides both useable knowledge and abstract skills.”

    I am an abstract algebra/number theorist, I’ve worked in research laboratories, the government, and academia, both in the US and overseas. While I delight in the abstract, it’s the concrete, real world applications and uses for math which really make it come alive.

    Applications make math come alive and perhaps might keep more students engaged. Though I don’t agree that this one change would fix our math education, I do think it would certainly help!

    Reply
  16. Steve

    Hi Linda,

    I read that New York Times article when it came out and it made me furious. I love your rebuttal, and I agree with many of your points. I also wanted to make you aware of a program that shares your philosophy that is currently in place, and having a positive impact on teaching math.

    What seems like a lifetime ago, I used to work for a group called “Project SEED” (see link below). The Project SEED philosophy is to put people with strong academic math backgrounds (with degrees in math, physics, engineering, etc.) into classes of elementary school students to do direct instruction. As you alluded to, elementary school teachers are required to be generalists and the subject they usually have the least amount of expertise in is mathematics. Because their instructors have that math expertise, Project SEED pushes the curriculum and does advanced topics that are several grade levels ahead and really challenges students, instead of doing remedial instruction. One of their catch phrases is that they are out to build “academic self-confidence”, especially focused on math. They have been extensively evaluated, and always show to have a significant, positive impact on standard test results. Unfortunately, funding was always an issue for the program, so I ended up pursuing another position that I felt was more stable.

    What’s even more unfortunate, Project SEED has been in place for over 40 years, but has gotten little recognition. I’m sure there are other programs out there that are also successfully advancing math instruction. So why are we constantly trying to find “programs that work”, when we already have them? To say that we need to “dumb down” math instruction, which is how I interpreted the article by Garfunkle and Mumford, is complete lunacy to me. We need to do the opposite, and show kids at an early age how wonderful and amazing mathematics can be.

    My wife is a high school English teacher, and we are shocked at the way teachers are being maligned in our state. Or how the governor in Michigan has cut education funding to give “job creating” tax breaks to corporations. And who will fill these positions, assuming that they ever come to be, if we don’t have an educated work force? It’s just madness.

    I guess the only solace I have is that I feel very confident that I will remain very employable for the rest of my career with my MS in applied statistics. Because if people like Garfunkle and Mumford get their way, there’s not going to be many more people getting advanced math degrees in this country in the near future. And that’s not a good thing, because most of the country’s past successes required mathematics. And so will any potential future success.

    Keep up the good fight,

    Steve

    Reply
  17. Maurice

    Linda,

    In China, there is a belief “Master Math, Physics, and Chemistries, you can go anywhere”. That’s why there are so many trained engineers in China. Math is the foundation of all science, and I hope to see an increased interest in math here due to the job market strength.

    Cheers,

    Maurice

    Reply

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