Thursday, May 5, 2022

Why American Children Cannot Do Math?

At a time when the ever-appalling teachers’ union head, Randi Weingarten is doing everything in her power to evade responsibility for school shutdowns and remote learning, we read in the New York Times a voice of sanity. Up to a point, that is.

That is, we read the thoughts of the mother of a New York fourth grader, who is concerned that her child is not learning how to do math. 

In that she is entirely correct. She would be more correct if she had placed some of the blame on the teachers’ unions-- she did not mention them-- and if she had placed a goodly portion of the blame on diversity, equity and inclusion. The phrase might have been spawned recently, but schools have been forced to integrate for decades now. That has not improved math education, but has produced a tracking system where schools are divided between those who can do advanced work and those who are just getting by.

So, Jessica Grose suggests that the debate over critical race theory is obscuring the fact that American schoolchildren cannot do math. One might have noted that the ongoing effort to shroud everything in anti-racism and gender nonsense is a primary reason why American schoolchildren cannot do math.

And, of course, it is true that American children are world class laggards in math and science. And that the current notion that we should dispense with standardized tests risks making the problem worse. In truth, we already use different criteria for college admissions, based on race and ethnicity. That means, as MIT discovered when it suspended the SAT requirements, that it was admitting too many students who could not do the work.

Grose writes:

What I care deeply about is whether my kids are learning the math they are supposed to be learning at their grade level. And I find that very little of the recent political battles over what schools are teaching actually focuses on how American students are doing compared with students in other parts of the world. While most of these culture war conversations are kick-started from the right, there are also unpopular ideas from the left that draw backlash, like recommending against accelerated math in middle school and making standardized college entrance exams optional — despite only 14 percent of Americans believing that standardized tests shouldn’t be a factor in college admissions decisions, according to Pew Research.

She turns to one William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor to assess the damage:

The journalist Amanda Ripley name-checked Schmidt in her 2013 best seller, “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.” She noted at the time that “math eluded American teenagers more than any other subject,” and she cited subpar American performance on an international exam called PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.

… in 2018, math performance remained below average for the United States, and the trend lines in performance on all subjects have been “stable, with no significant improvement or decline,” according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which oversees PISA.

We have, for the paste twenty or so years, divided the nation between the best and the rest. We have allowed the best to excel while we have, for reasons that are not explained, allowed the rest to languish in ignorance. 

In the 1990s, “except for the elite 20 percent, the seventh and eighth grade was still doing arithmetic, when the rest of the world, even the more developing countries, were covering the beginnings of algebra and geometry. We estimated our curriculum was two years behind much of the rest of the world.”

One ought to notice, as Grose does not, that certain charter schools in New York City consistently produce vastly better outcomes than do the New York public schools. For all the teeth-gnashing the truth is-- Success Academies succeed where public schools fail. And clearly, the reason lies in the rigorous and disciplined approach that these schools practice. While public schools are no longer allowed to expel disruptive students, charter schools have far more latitude when it comes to classroom conduct.

So, our lust for equality has produced vast inequality. 

Educational inequality remains a huge problem for the United States, and for a 2015 study, Schmidt and his co-authors looked at PISA test data from more than 300,000 students in 62 countries. There were only 10 countries where the gap between rich and poor students was greater than in the United States. 

Somehow or other, Grose and Schmidt want to discuss how we can emulate the results in ethnically homogeneous countries. Apparently, diversity is not our strength. Our insistence on forced integration has not served us well:

We could discuss how we could emulate countries that are “both relatively high performing and equitable,” according to Schmidt’s study, such as Poland, Finland and Estonia. We would be having conversations about states with higher-than-average test scores for all children and try to figure out what they’re doing right and replicate it. But we don’t. As he put it to me, the culture war right now “has nothing to do with whether these kids learn mathematics, and it’s irrelevant and a waste of time.”

As I said, let us place responsibility on teachers’ unions and politicians who make it more difficult to open new charter schools. And let us notice that America has decided to cover up the problem by saying that racial integration and anti-racism training would solve the problem. In truth, they are the problem.


markedup2 said...

I don't think racial integration has much to do with it. It may have made things harder for a generation of students - if the parents hate each other, no doubt that slips into classrooms - but it's been 50 years, now.

"Anti-racism" (aka CRT) is another thing, entirely. That's not bring bad attitudes into a classroom, that's inculcating bad attitudes in the classroom.

IMHO, it's early education. Without a sound foundation, one cannot advance. Math is particularly bad that way. The "nonsense" one learns in one class is suddenly invaluable in the next.

I moved around a lot in grade school and was exposed to vastly different math instruction. It (permanently?) impaired my ability to do fractions. Just yesterday, 40 years later, I ran screaming from "what is 1/8th of 5?" (1 tsp = 5ml; what's 1/8 tsp?)

Anonymous said...

In elementary schools, Math should be taught the first two hours of the day. Then Science and History/Geography with reading comprehension and writing embedded. No more “Social Studies”. Save Language Arts skills for the last hour.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

At least until Covid, American kids were doing fine in math. I think they will recover as well. On the PISA test, Asian-Americans do better than Asians (except Singapore); European-Americans do better than Europeans (except Finland and maybe Estonia now - and about even with the rest of Scandinavia); American Hispanics do better than every Latin American country, often by far. Africa-Americans wildly outscore all African and Caribbean countries. The difference is that the US actually has all these groups, and the last two groups score much lower, bringing the average down.

As for Covid, that is the one area where students may have lost ground. Above about sixth grade, most of it will be used seldom in the future, and it is a running test over the next six years of how far a kid can rise with uninterrupted block-stacking. That has been interrupted now, at least a bit, and it is likely scores will be depressed for at least a year. I would bet against the effect lasting much longer than that, though, as natural intelligence overrules whatever the schools were doing. We have to remember that no schools do that much, not now, not a hundred years ago. Specific skills may taught, but a number of them might work just as well and end up with the same result a decade later.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that "educators" and "teachers" are not doing their jobs. Taking the salaries, though... My parents were teachers, and I learned in class in schools. But that was years ago.

Bummer for kids in schools NOW.

Uncle Bill said...

All kids should learn the basics of math - that develops a certain amount of logical thinking. But, let's face it, most kids will never use geometry or algebra after they get out of high school.
What I am most concerned about are the 10 or 20 percent of kids who could go on to some career that uses, and needs, higher level math: engineering, science, economics, even accounting. I am afraid that they are not getting the basic math that they need to move on to more advanced subjects in college. If the foundation is not there, you cannot build a structure on top of it. And the idea of doing away with advanced courses in math (and other subjects) just because some groups of kids are not able to handle it is unspeakably stupid. We are imposing a handicap on some of our best and brightest, because they are the best and brightest.

Anonymous said...

1/8 of 5...= 5ml ÷ 8 = 0.625 ml