Monday, August 11, 2008

Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution (re-posted from Dec 2006)

Math and Science, oh my. What will we do? We don’t produce enough students interested in math and science. Something must be done. I hear this refrain so often my head hurts.

First my credentials: I was a math major in college. I got 98 on every math Regent’s test offered. (I lived in New York where testing ruled in the world in the 50’s too.) My mother always asked where the other two points went. I grew up to be a computer science professor. I am not a math phobe. But neither am I a math proponent. I never used math in my professional life. Never ever.

I always start any discussion on education by asking if the person I am talking with knows the quadratic formula. One out of hundred knows it. (The last few people I asked included the head of a major testing service, the secretary of education of a state in the US, various state legislators, and 200 high school principals. Then why do we teach this obviously useless piece of information to every student in the world? Because math is important, of course.

Really? Show me the evidence.

As a person who did graduate admissions for 30 years at three of the top ten universities in the country, I know what this hysteria is actually about. Nearly all applicants to graduate computer science programs (which is what I know – but it is true in most fields of engineering and science) are foreign nationals. We wonder why American kids aren’t interested in these fields – which is a reasonable enough question. But then we have come up with an extraordinary answer.

What we say is that we must teach math and science better in high school. There are now so many programs meant to do this it makes my head spin. Here are reasons why this is simply the wrong answer.

Do we really believe that the reason that there so many foreign applicants to US graduate programs is that they teach math and science better in other countries? China and India provide most of the applicants. They also have most of the people. And many of those people will do anything to live in the U.S. So they cram math down their own throats knowing that it is a ticket to America. Very few of these applicants are coming from Germany, Sweden, France or Italy. Is this because they teach math badly there or is it because those people aren’t desperate to move to the U.S.?

In the U.S., students are not desperate to move to the US, so when you suggest to them that they numb themselves with formulas and equations they refuse to do so. The right answer would be to make math and science actually interesting, but with those awful tests as the ultimate arbiter of success this is very difficult to do.

No change in education will ever happen in the US until the testing mentality is done away with. No average high functioning adult could pass them so why make kids do it? This makes no sense. What also makes no sense is the idea that math and science are important subjects. You can live a happy life without ever having taken a physics course or knowing what a logarithm is.

On the other hand, being able to reason on the basis of evidence actually is important. Thinking rationally and logically is important. Knowing how to function in a world that includes new technology and all kinds of health issues is important. Knowing how things work and being able to fix them and perhaps design them is important.

Lets get serious. We don’t need more math and science. We need more people who can think.

We need to teach job skills, people skills, and reasoning skills. And we need to make education exciting and interesting. We need performance tests not competence tests. If we did all that we would get more Americans interested in math and science because we would get more Americans actually interested in being in school.