Reality Check: Does Anybody Care What Andrew Hacker Thinks? Monday, Apr 4 2016 

So I’m just trying to figure out who, if anybody, cares what Andrew Hacker thinks about math education.

This is an earnest question.

At least since 2012, when he had an opinion piece in the NYT, he has been going on about how we should stop requiring “advanced” math, from algebra up, in schools. He was in the NYT twice again recently and has a new book out about it.

Now, of course both math educators and mathematicians are going to “care” in the sense that it annoys us. We are spending all this time trying to figure out how to improve students’ appreciation for and understanding of algebra etc., and out comes this dude talking about “scrap that whole project.” I remember there being at least a few responses in the MTBoS back in 2012, although Dan Meyer’s and Patrick Honner’s are the only ones I remember specifically. (Dan had some more fun with it a few years later.) And I was moved to write this reading mathematician Evelyn Lamb’s piece in Slate responding to Hacker’s book. (Dan’s responses succinctly summarize Hacker’s lack of imagination. Mr. Honner sees algebra in what Hacker wants to replace algebra with. And if you want to get more into the details, go read Lamb’s piece, it’s great.)

But annoying math teachers and mathematicians is definitely not the same thing as being remotely relevant. I mean, he is suggesting to do away with required algebra precisely at the point in history when, between the Common Core, the increasing quantity and stakes of standardized testing, and the incessant press handwringing about international competitiveness,[1] it seems to me that math, including advanced math, is more centrally ensconced in the curriculum than it’s ever been. (In my lifetime anyway. Possible historical exception of the immediate post-Sputnik era.) Is anybody taking him remotely seriously?

Yes, he has coverage in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Ed. This doesn’t answer the question. He’s being intentionally provocative and succeeding in getting a rise. Is anybody taking his proposals seriously?

I eagerly await your thoughts.

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Postscript: Let me indulge myself to go ahead and give you my take, just for the record. Disclaimer that I haven’t read his book. I’m going on the 3 NYT pieces.

At the level of fundamental goals, he is upset about the fact that so many Americans have traumatic experiences with their math education, meanwhile graduating without basic numeracy needed for citizenship, and he wants to do something about it. I’m not mad at this, nor could I be.

I’m also sort of delighted that being a public intellectual counts for enough that this 86-year-old Queens College political scientist can mouth off in the NYT whenever he wants. I hope that when I’m 86, the NYT still exists and I can mouth off in it whenever I want.

But on to the merits themselves. I think he sees a real problem but I, like Dan, think he lacks imagination about both (a) what math education could be, and (b) what math is for – he doesn’t get it as a domain of human inquiry, or an intellectual inheritance, just as a tool, so he applies a utilitarian standard to it I’m sure he’d never apply to history, or art, say. But also, (c) I think he misdiagnoses the problem if he thinks removing required algebra (and up) will solve it. Algebra isn’t the first point in the curriculum where massive numbers of American children jump ship emotionally. This is already happening with fractions, and may begin much earlier. Hacker would never propose to take fractions, or even more fundamental stuff, out of the curriculum, since it’s obviously (even to him) part of the “citizen mathematics” he champions.[2] Doing a good job teaching math is a problem to be solved, not avoided. Finally, (d) I think he would probably puke if he really thought through the antidemocratic implications of a general public without advanced technical literacy while all the contemporary centers of power – finance, info tech, biotech, etc. – are technocratic and growing more so. He sometimes argues that you don’t need to know algebra to learn to code. Depends on what you are coding I suppose, but in any case this is beside the point. Sergey Brin does know algebra. Jamie Dimon does too.

Update 4/5: Sam Shah sends this graphic of number of people on feedly who “saved” or “favorited” Hacker’s Feb. 27 piece (which is about what he wants to replace algebra with):

benbs

Update 6/28: Patrick Honner wrote something relevant on the Math for America blog back in May – When It Comes to Math Teaching, Let’s Listen to Math Teachers.

[1] I’m only lumping these three things (CCSSM, high-stakes testing, and international-comparison handwringing) together from the point of view that all three seem to me to be moves in the direction of consolidating the consensus on the centrality of math in contemporary American education. I do not have them confused with each other and I don’t feel the same way about each of the three at all. For exmaple, I basically dig the CCSSM but (as any regular reader of this blog knows) I do not at all dig high-stakes testing.

[2]Patrick Honner’s post points out that Hacker’s notion of “citizen mathematics” almost surely involves algebra as well…

And, a teacher shortage… Tuesday, Aug 11 2015 

An obvious observation –

The last 6 or 7 years in public education policy seem to have been characterized by the following trends:

1) Tying teacher evaluation, hiring, firing, and teacher pay to student standardized test results.
2) Relatedly, using value-added measurements in making these decisions.
3) School closings and state takeovers.
4) Using VAM in making decisions about those too.

I.e. Stressing all the adults who work in schools the f*ck out.

Also:

5) Subcontracting to charter networks.
6) Direct funding cuts.

I.e. divesting from education as a public trust.

All in all, these trends, spearheaded by the US Dept. of Ed. under the leadership of Arne Duncan, but with numerous assists from other folks, representing both public and private interests (being in NYC, I’m lookin at you Mike Bloomberg), seem to me to have an obvious common theme:

Making public schools shittier places to work.

Recently, both the NYT and EdWeek have reported a national teacher shortage as enrollment in teacher training programs has dropped precipitously for several years in a row. Even TfA is having trouble recruiting.

Motherf*ckers, what did you think was gonna happen?

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(Cynical voice at back of head: Ben, you are so effing naive. That’s what they wanted to happen. What better excuse to hire un-credentialed people to teach poor children? Me: No! I don’t believe it!)

Addendum (5/9/16): It came to my attention at some point that there was some debate last summer about the validity of NYT’s and EdWeek’s coverage. Is/was there really a national teacher shortage this fall, or were there certain districts with a shortage and others with a surplus? Michael Pershan had some tweets about this. So, let me just acknowledge this debate. This post was a quickly-fired-off response to seeing talk of a shortage in two major press outlets, after several years of running workshops with young teachers and feeling awe for their willingness to stay in the game even as working conditions have become shittier. If there is a shortage, I’m not surprised. If there’s not, then, let’s hope it stays that way. Go young people! That is all.

Take the Effing Tests Guys Friday, Jun 1 2012 

In December, Kate had a great idea, which I seconded.

We just got backed by Diane Ravitch.

I’d say it’s time to take this one to the streets.

Dispatches from the Learning Lab: Yup, Time Pressure Sucks Friday, Mar 2 2012 

Continuing the series I began here and here, about snippets of new-feeling insight about the learning process coming from my new role on the student side of the desk…

This one is funny, because I knew it, I mean I knew it in my bones, from a decade working with students; but yet it’s totally different to learn it from the student side. I’m a little late to the blogosphere with this insight; I’ve been thinking about it since December, because it kind of freaked me out. Even though, like I keep saying, I already knew it.

Learning math under time pressure sucks. It sucks.

It sucks so much that I ACTUALLY STOPPED LIKING MATH for about 5 days in December.

I didn’t know this was possible, and I don’t think anyone who’s ever worked closely with me in a mathematical context (neither my students, colleagues, or teachers) will really believe it. But it’s true. It was utterly, completely unfun. There was too much of it and too little time. It was like stuffing a really delicious meal down your throat too quickly to chew, or running up the Grand Canyon so fast you puke. Beautiful ideas were everywhere around me and I was pushing them in, or pushing past them, so hard I couldn’t enjoy them; instead they turned my stomach, and I had the feeling that the ones I pushed past in a hurry were gone forever, and the ones I shoved in weren’t going to stay down.

I had some independent study projects to work on during winter break, and what was incredible was the way the day after my last final exam, math suddenly became delicious again. Engaging on my own time and on my own terms, that familiar sense of wonder was back instantly. All I had to do was not be required to understand any specific thing by any specific date, and I was a delighted, voracious learner again.

Now part of the significance of this story for me is just the personal challenge: most of the grad students I know are stressed out, and I entered grad school with the intention of not being like them in this respect. I was confident that, having handled adult responsibilities for a decade (including the motherf*cking classroom, thank you), I would be able to engage grad school without allowing it to stress me out too much. So the point of this part of the story is just, “okay Grad Program, I see you, I won’t take you for granted, you are capable of stressing me out if I let you.” And then regroup, figure out how to adjust my approach, and see how the new approach plays out in the spring semester.

But the part of the story I want to highlight is the opposite part, the policy implication. Look, I frickin love math. If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know this. I love it so much that most of my close friends sort of don’t feel that they understand me completely. So if piling on too much of it too quickly, with some big tests bearing down, gets me to dislike math, if only for 5 days, then the last decade of public education policy initiatives – i.e. more math, higher stakes – is nothing if not a recipe for EVERYONE TO HATE IT.

And, not learn it. Instead, disgorge it like a meal they didn’t know was delicious because it was shoved down their throat too fast.

In short. The idea of strict, ambitious, tested benchmarks in math to which all students are subject is crazy. It’s CRAZY. The more required math there is, and the stricter the timeline, the crazier. I mean, I already knew this ish was crazy, I’ve been saying this for years, but in light of my recent experience I’m beside myself. If you actually care about math, if you have ever had the profound pleasure of watching a child or an adult think for herself in a numerical, spatial or otherwise abstract or structural context, you know this but I have to say it: the test pressure is killing the thing you love. Its only function is to murder something beautiful.

If you teach, but especially if you are a school leader, and especially if you are involved in policy, I beg you: defend the space in which students can learn at their own pace. Fight for that space.

Two More Links I Gotta Share… Sunday, Mar 13 2011 

From the NYT, on value added – profiling a young, energetic and by all accounts highly successful teacher with a bad value added score.

I guess it was a matter of time before the media stopped acting 100% in love with value added scores; but what a relief.

I had a conversation with an old friend today who works in the federal government, in the department of labor. We were talking about various unhealthy, ineffective patterns and dynamics (and people, truth be told) in our respective professional worlds. Both of us are depressed by lack of effectiveness.

It is in the name of effectiveness, of course, that districts across the nation have been jumping headlong into the practice of rating teachers based on an opaque calculation with their students’ test scores, on tests that were already dubious measures of anything worthwhile, and then using these ratings to make decisions affecting teachers’ jobs. I don’t know the best policy environment to promote teacher effectiveness, but I know for certain it’s not this. If you want to find a perfect system for diverting all teachers’ attention away from their students’ learning and their own growth, look no further than value added ratings.

I don’t want to be preaching to the choir here (although I probably am), so to the proponents of value-added measures, let me say this:

I know what I’m saying sounds counterintuitive to you – why wouldn’t incentivizing having your students perform well on measures of their learning lead you to focus on their learning? I will put aside for the moment the extremely important question of whether state tests are a measure of students’ learning (let alone whether value-added methodology really measures teachers’ contribution to it), and respond with an even more fundamental question:

Think of the last time you did something complicated and nuanced, something rich and interesting enough to require some creativity and artfulness from you. Imagine now that you were REALLY ANXIOUS about the outcome while you planned and performed your work. Would this anxiety really help you do it better?

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On a lighter note (well, sort of):

From Shawn Cornally, on teaching evolution:

So many people trying to tell us how to teach promote the just-say-it-better model of education. This doesn’t work. You can’t just talk at kids and say things ‘better’ than your teachers did. They need time to simmer. They need time to think. They need people to lay off and let them fucking think for a second.

Word.

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