|Andrew Hacker: Which graph wore it better?|
Now that we've summarized the Hacker philosophy of math education, let's get back to my issues with the most recent Andrew Hacker OpEd regarding his insults to AP Statistics. This is where I start to get angry.
Hold up, did you read Part I yet? If not: The Wrong Way to Target Math (Part I)
In the recent NY Times OpEd Andrew Hacker writes: "Calculus and higher math have a place, of course, but it’s not in most people’s everyday lives. What citizens do need is to be comfortable reading graphs and charts and adept at calculating simple figures in their heads." Let me start off by saying that I don't disagree with Andrew Hacker's concern with the general public's lack of numeracy and statistical literacy skills. I fully support the idea of people being able to read a graph, do some mental math, and having a good grasp of arithmetic. You can find no argument from me there. But, actually, most people do use Calculus daily, they just don't know it or think about it explicitly. [You step on the gas pedal, guess what happens? Just guess.] Where he loses me completely, though, is with the argument that people don't need to learn beyond his daft definition of everyday mathematics.
Hacker goes on to discuss what kind of math he thinks these everyday type people should learn. I start to get excited because I know what's coming, he's about to talk about statistics. Alright, maybe he can redeem himself a bit. Nope, the buzz kill that follows is his trashing of the AP Statistics curriculum. "The A.P. syllabus is practically a research seminar for dissertation candidates." Pump the brakes, you think these kids are ready to do dissertations? Awww, well maybe in your academic field they are.
Now, wait for it cuz it gets even sillier, his criticism comes from sitting in on a few AP Stats classes. Guys, that's the extent of his research it seems. Some anecdotal evidence, no meta-analysis, not even a lit review. Weak. Anyway, he's not happy at all because AP Stats is not about the 'citizen statistics' like he'd wanted. Nah kid, let's ignore the curriculum developed by real statistics educators (including my own statistics professor, by the way) with real statistics degrees and go with the retired PoliSci professor's plan. Because he thinks it's just too hard. Okay.
Here's where it gets really fun: "What’s needed is a facility for sensing symptoms of bias, questionable samples and dubious sources of data." Yes, Andrew Hacker, that's the kind of stuff we do in AP Statistics. He goes on to give a bit of an explanation about what he would teach instead, giving an example of his numeracy class (to be used with the chart above):
"One exercise focuses on visualizing data. I have the class prepare a report on how many households in the United States have telephones, land and cell. After studying census data, they focus on two: Connecticut and Arkansas, with respective ownerships of 98.9 percent and 94.6 percent. They are told they have to choose one of the following charts to represent the numbers, and defend their choice.
The first chart suggests a much bigger difference, but is misleading because the bars are arbitrarily scaled to exaggerate that difference."And that's it? Really? He's going to end the conversation there? I mean, I like that he uses accurate data here. (I checked; it's accurate.*) Spoiler alert: there might be more to this story! A skeptical, but fun person might comment about that Choice B graph: "I see that Connecticut has a higher percentage of households with phones than in Arkansas, but it doesn't look like a big difference. Is that a significant enough difference?" In that case, Andrew Hacker is the biggest stats tease there ever was if that's where he wants to end it. [To my students reading this, I promise you'll get to learn how to finish that story if you're skeptical.]
Oh, Andrew Hacker, that's great. (No really, I think that's a great activity. I like the use of real data. Crappy graph scales are a personal pet peeve of mine. I did essentially that very lesson last year on Day 1 of my AP Statistics class... because making appropriate graphs is part of the AP Stats curriculum, duh.) But AP Statistics ≠ AP Graph Reading. I know, I know. We'd like it to all be easy-peasy, but apparently Andrew Hacker missed the part where AP stands for Advanced Placement, not Stuff Kids Should Have Learned in Elementary School.
|Real course evaluation question from my AP Statistics class last year. Notice the appropriate scale!|
You see, statistics is about measuring variability, learning how to plan studies appropriately so that we can make solid conclusions from them, making decisions from data, and so much more. That's no easy feat. And this big kid stuff we do in AP Stats is challenging, sure. I'd be willing to bet that all the students in my AP Stats class would tell you they've been challenged by the material. That doesn't mean it's not a worthy challenge, however.
Hacker ends with this thought: "The assumption that all this math will make us more numerically adept is flawed... Perhaps this is because in the real world, we constantly settle for estimates, whereas mathematics — see the SAT — demands that you get the answer precisely right." Ok, so that moment there is how I know for sure that Andrew Hacker has no real grasp of statistics. (For how his understanding of math is lacking, refer to Part I of this rant.) You see, this is precisely how statisticians and mathematicians differ. In statistics, we do a lot of that estimation to which he refers. We don't mind if we're not super precise. In fact, we know that our estimates are likely wrong. We don't lose sleep over it. We don't because we can quantify the errors that we make. No one can be perfect, so we try to at least minimize those errors with regard to desired outcomes.
And, here's the thing... I am in disbelief with the argument that Andrew Hacker makes about this introductory level of college statistics not being useful or necessary for everyday people. I just don't buy it and, thankfully, neither do my students. I don't ever get the question, "Ms. Hogan, when am I ever going to need this?" Like ever. My students often come back to tell me how useful the course was for them. The use of the term 'real-world application' is on broken record in their open-ended course evaluations, even the whiners and ones who found the course to be really challenging. Many of my former students talk about how applicable the AP Stats class was for their college learning. By the way, not all are Math or Statistics majors. Some of them are majoring in less challenging things like Political Science.
More on that in the next installment of "Who Needs Political Science? Not Everybody" – The Wrong Way to Target Math (Part III)
* For the Stats people who want to play with the data, here's the actual Census data regarding the percentage of phones in U.S. households cited in the Hacker OpEd: Telephones: 1960-2000. At least it's accurate.
(Graphic from Hacker, A. (Feb. 28, 2016). "The Wrong Way to Teach Math." New York Times Opinion; accessed: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/opinion/sunday/the-wrong-way-to-teach-math.html; Jennifer Lawrence thumbs up gif from Giphy.com.)