Read part 1 here.
In light of the election, I have been on a bit of a thought and writing spree. While I recently processed through a fair bit of the election as a whole, there is so much that will be affected that I need to take it bit by bit. Right now I am thinking about education, particularly mathematics education, as this is something very near to me and something I have a strong passion for.
When I consider the current state of education, I am not very optimistic on a systemic level. The past two large-scale attempts at reforming the public school system — No Child Left Behind and the Common Core — have seemed to be rather unsuccessful. When considering mathematics specifically, we seem to focus on topics that are not what math is for, leaving students with an inaccurate sense of what math provides society. People wear “I’m bad at math” as a badge of honor, which is very worrisome. To steal ideas from A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart (an awesome read for those interested), someone who is not talented in art or languages or music would likely not pride themselves on this fact. Nobody goes around complaining how they never need to know the importance of the Cross of Gold speech from William Jennings Bryan anymore, nor even that they have no use for an understanding of mitosis. However, all you will hear about math is that they never use it, and they don’t know how to do taxes.
These complaints are a direct result of exam-focused mathematics that emphasizes the ability to test a child on their knowledge. A focus on word problems and computations that are devoid of anything interesting attempts to give kids incredibly contrived applications of math, and thus ruins the beauty of the topic. So they go through life believing math is about doing what a calculator or computer can do much faster than we can, and are upset when they aren’t taught how to do their taxes or create a budget or understand a mortgage, since these seem to fall solidly into the realm of math for them.
In short, the exam-based topical mathematics curricula that have been developed over the last sixteen years have forced an incredibly poor view of mathematics, and this makes me pessimistic about where education is at a systemic level. Thus I am pushed to look at a more personal level, whether this be at a district, school or classroom level. As we go down levels, on the whole I become more optimistic. It is easier to put people in these positions to positively influence students, even though they are restricted by the requirements of the curriculum and funding that is inevitably tied to performance.
I tend to view the classroom level, the teacher-student interaction, as the most significant. While curriculum will be what it will be, and no matter what it is likely that algebra, geometry and precalculus are here to stay, a teach can make a huge difference. From my interactions in college thus far, the majority of people fall into one of three categories:
(1) I still love math (whether or not I am good at it)
(2) I used to love math, but then it became too difficult
(3) I used to love math (and was good or bad), but then I had this one math teacher…
Few people fall into (1), and while we can consider (2), this is common in any subject. Naturally, (3) is where my concern is. The difference between someone appreciating math and hating math is often one semester with a single teacher. Once the crucial experience with the inept teacher occurs, there is rarely a rebound.
At this point, some of you who made it this far may be wondering how I got from the election to here. The first reason is how this election will affect the ability of teachers to be successful. It is now likely that college students will be offered no more relief from their increasing debt, and this will greatly affect how many excellent teachers we can get into schools. The racial stratification in our public schools is also not likely to improve as a result of this education, and may get worse. The socioeconomic gap in educational achievement has not been discussed in this election cycle from all I’ve heard, and this is concerning. These schools that have so little resources reinforce an oppressive cycle in our education system that is nearly impossible to escape. More needs to be done to improve funding and recruiting excellent educators in the future, and this does not seem to be anything that will be discussed in the near future.
The second reason is more specific to STEM education: statistical and scientific literacy. This has long been a point of contention between the public and lawmakers. The lack of literacy on modern scientific issues, the insistence that these issues are a plot perpetrated by whomever, and what seems to be an incapability to process relevant data and use it to make effective laws is totally shocking. From my perspective, this seems to be a continuing issue due to a lack of public statistical and scientific literacy. If the public and the media are not calling for lawmakers who can understand scientific arguments, and forcing their hands by not electing them, there is no pressure to improve the situation. We need people in our government who can enact change, and are willing to look at relevant data. They must believe that government-funded, objective studies are actually more useful than their rudimentary understanding based solely on opinions formed without any reasoning.
Critical thinking and abstract thought needs to be focused on. The lack of rational argument and respectful discourse on both sides has resulted in this election cycle, and ultimately it comes down to our education. Something needs to be done, but this does not seem likely after the election. That is scary.