Monday, July 30, 2012

Red flags -- few quick thoughts on Hacker and algebra

Following up on the previous post, we do need to have a serious debate on curriculum, but most attempts at starting these discussions are undercut by poor understanding of the subtle and complex way that what we learn in the classroom prepares (or fails to prepare) us for, if you'll pardon the phrase, real life. This lack of understanding is often accompanied by warning signs and, with no disrespect intended toward Dr. Hacker, a number of these show up in this NYT op-ed.

Here are a few examples.

State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

Using polynomial functions as an example makes me very, very nervous. Functions may be the most indispensable concept for real world applications and having a feel for them may well be most important foundation of mathematical intuition. This really bad example, particularly given his follow-up defense of "quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance." Has Hacker really thought through these skills?

Then there's this:

Nor will just passing grades suffice. Many colleges seek to raise their status by setting a high mathematics bar. Hence, they look for 700 on the math section of the SAT, a height attained in 2009 by only 9 percent of men and 4 percent of women. And it’s not just Ivy League colleges that do this: at schools like Vanderbilt, Rice and Washington University in St. Louis, applicants had best be legacies or athletes if they have scored less than 700 on their math SATs.

An old professor of mine, Bill Condon, once referred to the SAT as the toughest ninth grade math test you'll ever take. That about covers it. The questions are difficult but the algebra is extremely rudimentary and the geometry is so simple it can literally be covered in less than a page. The rest of the test is logic and basic  skills like reading graphs and tables. Nothing here is relevant to his proposal. Another really bad example.

I have to run now, but it's because I'm out of time, not out of red flags.

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