Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Wrong Way to Target Math (Part III)

I have waited over two months to continue my thoughts on Andrew Hacker. To be honest, the draft of this post has been sitting untouched since my first two posts. I thought the wait might help me mollify my response to his NY Times OpEd pieces and The Math Myth. Largely, though, it hasn't. I am still just as frustrated as I was before. Here, I'll try my best to wrap up my thoughts because I am eager to put him out of my mind soon. My goal is to answer questions like "Who Needs Statistics?" and "Is Political Science Necessary?" But first, in order for you to fully understand, I'll need to talk about knitting. No, really.

Haven't read Part I or Part II yet? Here they are:
The Wrong Way to Target Math (Part I)
The Wrong Way to Target Math (Part II)

Many elementary school children are taught to knit, crochet, or weave. Why knitting? Are we teaching them this because we want them to become self-sufficient with a good scarf collection? Do we think they'll more likely be able to score well on the SAT knowing the difference between a purl and knit stitch? Are we preparing the future KEO's (Knitting Executive Officers) of the world? No. So why do we teach kids to knit? Well, knitting is great to help develop skills that are, you know, kind of important. Things like hand-eye coordination, basic counting, pattern-building, critical-thinking, problem-solving, patience... just to name a few. With knitting, kids can find a way to relieve stress and be creative. (Side note: did you know that there is a whole subculture of mathematical knitting out there? The nerd in me is delighted.)

The fallacy that we need to only teach subjects and skills that are meant to be college preparation or a road to a career is heartbreaking to me. And it's this very idea that is the pedagogical foundation for why NYC public schools require Pre-K teaching content that is rooted in "college and career awareness." (I am not kidding.) So the activities in a Pre-K classroom might be something like: storytime, coloring, knitting, and how to get into Cornell. (Just kidding about Cornell; I don't know what college-prep in a Pre-K environment looks like.) I love the idea of helping children obtain positive goals and dreams, but it's hard for me to take seriously the idea that we should be cultivating careers for little kids beyond the regular question of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Because I mean, seriously then, why stop there? Why not add some retirement awareness in the curriculum too? (Please don't.)

So, why should we be teaching statistics? At this point, I could easily argue that AP Statistics is a great course for high school students using only the philosophy that it helps with that college-and-career-readiness hoopla. Slam dunk. Statistics can be easily applied to everyday scenarios and is used in many fields. The growing access to data and information make courses like statistics and data analytics more and more in demand. Humanities departments, including political science*, are increasingly including these courses as a degree requirements. A working group affiliated with the American Statistical Association is investigating how many college majors require statistics (or a quantitative course for which statistics is an option). At last count, I think it was over 130. Wow. And, most certainly, evidence of successful completion of a statistics course will add value to many résumés. I had a friend recently seeking a marketing job and one of the interview questions was, "Have you taken a course in Statistics?" Point blank.

Who needs statistics? Directly, perhaps not everyone. Indirectly, we all do. Learning statistics is not just about getting into a good college or being able to have a successful career. There are lots of, albeit sometimes subtle, ways in which we perceive and understand our world that are really about some good, old-fashioned statistical thinking. Like knitting, learning statistics helps develop a broad range skills that are beneficial for any student or professional. Statistics helps build skills related to quantitative reasoning, qualitative reasoning, questioning techniques, formulating an evidence-based argument, data analysis, data visualization, study design... and general bullshit nonsense detection. I hope the irony is not lost that those who know statistics well will have no problem seeing right through Andrew Hacker's ridiculous claims about AP Statistics.

To me, Andrew Hacker's stance that AP Statistics is too hard, irrelevant, or denying high school students diplomas is not even debatable. It's an elective course that can be taken concurrently with other math courses, in varying years of a student's high school career, and is rapidly growing in terms of student enrollment. That said, I have yet to hear of a high school requiring such an AP course as a graduation requirement. Many schools are offering non-AP-level Statistics elective courses, of course, sometimes with interdisciplinary applications. A friend in California, for example, teaches a sports statistics class at his high school. Another current trend is teaching statistics in the context of social justice. There are so many ways in which statistics can fit into high-school curricula nicely and be modified to meet the needs of a broad-range of student abilities. All this can be done in a way that's fun, interesting, and meaningful for learners.

The fact that Andrew Hacker doesn't address any of this is just a sign of his ignorance. But it's not actually his unfamiliarity with real math and statistics education that makes me so angry. What incenses me are the implications here that Hacker's model for math and stats education has on our culture and society. There's a heavy insinuation with the idea that there are educational opportunities that we should be denying public-education students in this country. In Part II, I discuss Hacker's notion that the general public should be adept at reading graphs. That begs the question: who, then, are creating those graphs? To me, Hacker is dividing the world into Graph-Readers and Graph-Creators. It's the Graph-Creators, then, who are in a position of power. In order to create equal opportunity for all, wouldn't you want your students to learn to become Graph-Creators? Apparently, not Professor Hacker.

So, that leads me to the last of my goals: Is political science necessary?

I can't think of the last time I used anything related to political science to get me through my work day. It wasn't required to make my breakfast this morning or to know how to tie my shoes. Directly, as with statistics, it's not really that important for many people. No one argues, however, that we should stop teaching political science or other social studies disciplines. For sure, political science is a worthy academic pursuit. Even with my limited knowledge of political science, I know that education (or, more precisely, lack of access to it) is an excellent mechanism for cultural suppression, hatred, and prejudice. You can find evidence of extreme cases of governments restricting education with Nazi Germany and the Khmer Rouge. It is the former that is the reason why my grandmother, whom I mentioned in Part I, was never able to finish school.

So, yes, in order to know all this we all need a little bit of political science. Many of my students go on to major in a diverse number of things in college: engineering, economics, psychology, computer science, and, yes, politics. It's awesome. (No word yet on any who have taken up knitting professionally.) In order for my students to have the ability to decide their own academic and career paths, I'd like to empower them with all the base skills they would need, not limit them. That means exposing students to a wide range of ideas, allowing them to author their own questions of inquiry, and giving them options for how they'd like to further their own thinking.

I am disheartened that a reputable paper like the NY Times would publish Hacker's ideas, even if they are tucked away in the OpEd section. To most people, this seems like an harmless decision on the editors part. To me, it's scary. In the past 15 years or so, New York State has gone through three math curriculum changes. You read that correctly. The wind blows a few degrees in the opposite direction and the next thing you know, we have a new curriculum to roll out. I'd hate for someone with zero math education experience to get a whiff of these ideas and use them to make decisions about the next math curriculum reincarnation. No, thank you. I'd like real math educators to be the influencers on how we decide to teach math and statistics in our schools.

*I took a peek at Princeton's Politics department to see just what the course requirements were for their undergraduate major. I was not surprised to see that they have an analytics requirement; I was surprised to see the detail in which they give for such a requirement. I was also intrigued to see that they made mention of this great 2009 NY Times article, "For Today’s Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics."

(Painting is Albert Anker's Little Girl Knitting.)


  1. Is Political Science Necessary? No, and thats why you dont have to pass 4-6 courses in it to recieve a high school diploma. That was Hacker's exact point (and I dont agree with him), that the stringent Algebra I-Geometry-Algebra II-Trigonometry-Precalculus-Calculus should not be required (in the same way the introductory sequences of other disciplines like political science are not required) to get a HS diploma. As someone in neuroscience I wish I had been required to take several courses in human anatomy and physiology in high school but we don't all get our favorite subjects in the HS curriculum (looking at Math and English nerds).

    1. NY state students currently need 4 years of social studies, but only 3 in math. So Pre-Calc and Calculus (or AP Stats) are most certainly not a requirement.