Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Math is Necessary

Somewhere, someone, not long ago, in a blog not far away, and wrote something about teaching useless math. I wrote this comment in response. Because it was late at night and I wasn't sure I was being fair. I hope I pulled it. I pasted it here. I lost the original reference so here it goes.
As an Architect I use all of that stupid math stuff all the time. I even occasionally use the Calculus I learned. That is the least important result of my education in mathematics.

I have discovered over many years that knowing math is important in every day life. It teaches people organized, abstract thought. People with good math understanding are much better at problem analysis and problem solving.

I wish people understood better the relationship between real world problem solving and the ability to think at the higher levels of abstraction necessary for basic mathematics (as opposed to arithmetic which way too many people don't understand).
Maitri has expressed her belief that the Scientific Method should taught more rigorously. I learned a similar, more general more intuitive method of problem solving, called The Design Process. Everyone needs to learn these kinds of abstract process. They are all versions of critical thinking and analysis. I'm all for that.

A related thought I see often expressed is that teacher's have to "Teach to the Test".

I had the benefit of an upper middle class upbringing with both parents at home. All of my father's family were college educated.

It was simply expected in my family that after High School (public - Hahnville) we would go to the college of our choice. Finances weren't a problem in those days because state colleges were much less expensive than they are now. That is a tragedy and a subject for another day.

I wonder how we are to achieve a responsive education system if there is not some form of testing. If we applied the modern methods of quality control pioneered by W. Edwards Deming, we would be testing continuously, providing feedback into the education process.

According to George W. Bush;
There are some who will say, well, we can't have the test because all they'll do is teach the test. Well, I went to a writing class here in this school, and they were teaching the children to write, and therefore, they were able to pass the test.
The issue to me is more of appropriate testing. If testing isn't predictive of results, then the testing is flawed. If the testing predicts poor results and are validated, then the process is flawed. There needs to be continuous feed back into the testing and the educational process. Testing is Quality Control.

Again George W. Bush;
You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test. I don't buy teaching the test as an excuse to have a system that doesn't hold people accountable for results.
I find it hard to dispute these statements. What I find hard to accept is the assumption that any standardized testing is bad. I've never been in an academic setting where some kind of testing isn't conducted. In the real world people are continuously tested and evaluated on their performance, except perhaps in some insular areas of government and academia where life tenancy is the norm.

No one, for example, gets into Law School without and LSAT. No one gets into a graduate program without a GRE. There is the MCAT for Medical School.

Again George W. Bush:
"Teaching a child to read, teaching a child to comprehend, is not teaching to a test, it is teaching a child so the child can pass a reading comprehension test."
I've read a lot about testing inhibiting teachers ability to teach. There are a lot of opinions by the professional educational establishment that testing is Baad. I've found very little scientific evidence to back those opinions up. Posting links to valid statistical studies of the results of standardized testing in welcomed.

In New Orleans there has been very little evidence that teachers were actually teaching. It has been widely acknowledged that our public school system was dysfunctional for years. I remember several years ago (before there was mandatory testing) that the Times Picayune published standardized test scores for New Orleans Public School students. What those tests showed was that upon entry the students were at the nation average and every year they were exposed to the New Orleans Public Schools every cohort fell behind.

If the testing is inappropriate, don't eliminate the requirement for testing, modify the testing to conform to verifiable results, not to the wishful thinking of some. This fallacy is demonstrated by the High School Diploma fetish. Years ago some economic studies indicated that if a person had a High School Diploma, they had significantly higher lifetime earnings. "The powers that be" decided that if more people got High School Diplomas, those people would do better economically. Unfortunately "the powers that be" confused the "earning" of a diploma and the education that required with simply "awarding" a diploma. As a result a High School Diploma lost any credibility as a mark of accomplishment.

I realize that children without the advantages I had face steep and daunting obstacles to achieving a mainstream lifestyle. We should be honest with their parents about the work necessary to achieve their goals. We should support these families at risk. We should not lie to them with false promises or false expectations.

I don't know if the current education "system" in New Orleans will succeed. I do know the ancien regime wasn't working. Something new and radical was necessary.


Puddinhead said...

Interesting. My two sons came out of the NOPS system each at sixth grade, in 2002 and in 2005 respectively, and as their stay in the Catholic school they entered began they proved to be well ahead of most of their classmates from parochial elementary schools in most subjects. My oldest would often say, "Dad, the rest of these guys say they never heard of a lot of the stuff we did." Many of their former elementary school classmates who went on to different schools seemed to have the same experience. Our case was certainly not typical of the NOPS system as a whole, but I'd have to say my boys were more than prepared for what they've since encountered.

LatinTeacher said...

I agree with you but I have other concerns. Testing itself is not bad. Well, maybe not testing but evaluating. A good teacher knows that a good test will reflect what (and how) the subject (material, ideas, etc.) was taught and the student's ability to grasp (comprehend, manipulate, etc.) that material.
The problem with "testing" on a large scale is that it takes away the teacher's ability to be creative (more later).
Are there basic levels of knowledge? Sure. Does the state of federal government know what that is? Maybe but probably not. The question for me is how do I, as a teacher, know what kind of evaluation my students are receiving? My evaluation of my students (because of my personality, the class' personality, the environment in which we worked, etc.) are all tied together. Someone in Baton Rouge or Washington will not know those particulars. Nor will they care.

Teachers are not machines - they are people and for every process there is not simply one way to complete it.
Here are the questions that I ask.
Should there be a baseline? (yes) Can my evaluation be fairly tied in to my students' performance on a standardized test? (no) Should schools be held accountable? (yes) Should students and parents be held accountable? (yes) Can a test not created by the teacher adequately evaluate student knowledge?
Evaluations are necessary. I think the current method encourages teaching to the test. How else could teachers approach this?