Monday, October 06, 2008

It all adds up: Why our kids need more and more rigorous math

An item in this morning's QT column in the Sun-Times set me off this morning, as it frequently does.

Today, Zay N. Smith notes in passing:
A primary school in Whitminster, England, has stopped giving its students a spelling list to learn each week because when the students don't spell the words correctly in class it can lead to a "sense of failure."
(Ellee Seymour, if this really isn't as mind-numbingly stupid as it seems to be, please advise.)

I am not out to pick on the Brits: Our American schools have more than enough of this muddle-headed lunatic behavior.

And, even when it does not come out sounding quite this bad, probably-well-meaning efforts to shield kids from their own mistakes have horrific consequences for our society.

Let me give you one real-life example:

Go to any college graduation in the States these days and you'll see all sorts of graduate engineers... most of them from places other than the United States. We produce history majors (like me) or English majors (like Older Daughter) but we are not producing a lot of our own, home-grown engineers and scientists.

Do you know why this is?

It's because our kids don't get algebra until high school.

And if you don't take Algebra I in 8th grade, unless you are very lucky, you won't be able to reach Calculus in high school. You need Geometry, Algebra II, College Algebra and Trigonometry before you can take Calculus.

Strangely enough, there was a time in my life when I would have been able to explain at least parts of the above equation. (Yes, I find it hard to believe, too, but it's true.) I took Calculus in high school. I did not have Algebra I in junior high. I was lucky because I was allowed to double up on Geometry and Algebra II my sophomore year and get on the calculus track.

I did not become an engineer. The college I attended didn't even have an engineering program. I did, however, flirt with being a math major in college -- until my ambitions foundered on the shoals of probability and statistics. But at least I had a chance to learn some of the intellectual rigor that math can provide: Emotion doesn't solve equations; logic does. Learning to think logically makes everyone a better citizen, even those like me who lacked the ability to perform better at higher mathematics.

My children have not been as fortunate as I was: They weren't allowed to double up on math. All were exposed to algebra in 8th grade, but the subject was not taught with sufficient rigor to enable any of them (with the sole exception of Oldest Son) to place out of first year algebra in high school. Oddly enough, he did go into computer engineering in college... because he could.

Students who don't fail don't learn. And students who don't fail aren't prepared for real life when failure means a heck of a lot more than getting your badly-done homework signed by a parent.

Youngest Son recently had troubles in Chemistry. Since he's 15, he didn't tell me about it. But, when I found out, I inquired: It seems he had troubles converting metric units to other metric units. In other words, he had troubles moving decimal places. Basic, basic math -- but somehow he didn't pick it up when he should have. Somebody (meaning well, surely) gave him a break when they should have given him extra homework, and maybe a note home, back in 3rd or 4th grade.

And now, perhaps (and I say probably), engineering or any other scientific discipline is closed to him.

I think Calculus in high school should be the rule, not the exception, and we should recalibrate our educational system accordingly. Kids should be challenged. They should fail. And they should learn from their failures and go on to fail again. In the long run, children raised this way will succeed far more than those who were spared the embarrassment of spelling a word wrong in class.


Shelby said...

Yes. I concur on every point. I'll ask again.. why are you not running for public office as of yesterday. We need people like you in charge of common sense.

Jeni said...

I agree with your theory too. I've lots of issues with the school systems these days -start with reading, for openers. If a child doesn't learn to read properly, then all the rest is lost because one must learn to read in order to also learn math! (Where would math be without those stinking "word problems?" Back in the olden days, when I went to high school, college prep meant you had to take one year of math beyond the 9th grade. I had Algebra 1 in 9th grade and in 10th, took Plane Geometry so I was "kosher" then with the college prep program. However, when I applied to go to college -32 years later -entrance requirements had changed but I didn't learn about this until I completed my first year in college and applied to the university for acceptance as a degree seeking candidate. I was turned down because I was lacking a carnegie credit and didn't have a clue what the hell a Carnegie credit was! Turns out it was that missing other math course, not required 32 years earlier but now part of admissions requirements. I had to take two math classes, the equivalent of Alg. 1 and Alg 2 -3 credit courses each but not credits counted towards my degree -to the tune of about $1,300 for the two classes in order to be admitted as a degree seeking candidate! Could have saved myself all that money had I just taken Algebra 2 in high school along with the plane geometry! Could have, but wouldn't have because I still needed to take the "refresher" classes to bring my math up-to-speed cause I'd forgotten most of the Algebra and Plane I learned way back when anyway! (Lesson here -"don't use it, you lose it!")

The Curmudgeon said...

Yes, thank you both for agreeing with me... but Shelby there's a reason why I am destined to remain mired in deserving obscurity. To wit, yesterday afternoon, when I had to deposit four checks to the office rent account, I added them up -- and was off by $1,000.

Thems as can't do....

Ellee Seymour said...

Hi, sorry for the delay in responding. I failed maths 3 times and can't help you with algebra, we are all scared of it over here. We are hopeless with metrication as well. You are right though when you say that "students who don't fail, don't learn."
My son is studying Economics, I will be interested to see what knowledge he brings home to share.
Yes, our schools get silly over here. I have trouble believing about that spelling test too. I hope it's not really going to happen now.