Thursday, March 3, 2016

Lower Standards Are a Conspiracy Against the Poor

Andrew Hacker's at it again. Professor emeritus of political science from Queens College in CUNY, frequent contributor to the New York Times -- they love him for the "Man Bites Dog" headlines they can push due to him being the college-professor-who's-against-math. He got a lot of traction for the 2012 op-ed, Is Algebra Necessary? And he has a new book coming out now -- so, more articles on the same subject, like The Wrong Way to Teach Math, and Who Needs Advanced Math, and The Case Against Mandating Math for Students, and more. (I wrote previously about how Hacker's critique is essentially incoherent here.)

Now, his suggestions for what "everyone needs to know" are not bad; e.g., how to read a table or graph, understand decimals and estimations... (maybe that's it, actually?). I totally agree that everyone should know that -- at, say, the level of a 7th or 8th-grade home-economics course, perhaps. To suggest that this is proper fare for college instruction would be comically outrageous -- if it weren't seriously being considered by top-level administrators at CUNY. Here are some choice things he's said recently in the articles linked above:
  • "I sat in on several advanced placement classes, in Michigan and New York. I thought they would focus on what could be called 'citizen statistics.'... My expectations were wholly misplaced. The A.P. syllabus is practically a research seminar for dissertation candidates. Some typical assignments: binomial random variables, least-square regression lines, pooled sample standard errors..." -- I'd say that these concepts are so incredibly basic, the very idea of regression and correlation so fundamental, for example, that you couldn't even call it a statistics class without those topics.

  • "Q: Aren’t algebra and geometry essential skills? A: The number of people who use either in their jobs is tiny, at most 5 percent. You don’t need that kind of math for coding. It’s not a building block." -- The idea that algebra concepts aren't necessary for coding, that someone who doesn't grasp the idea of a variable wouldn't be entirely helpless at coding (I've seen it!), in my personal opinion, essentially qualifies as fraud.

Okay, so statistics and coding are clearly not Hacker's area of expertise -- we might wonder why he feels confident in pontificating in these areas, and recommending truly radical reductions in standards, at all. Many of us would opine that the social-science departments have much weaker standards than the STEM fields; so perhaps we might generously say it's just a skewed perspective in this regard.

But the thing is, behind closed doors administrators know that students without math skills can't succeed at further education, and they can't succeed at technical jobs. That said, they are not incited to communicate that fact to anyone. What that they are grilled about by the media and political stakeholders are graduation rates, which at CUNY are pretty meager; around 20% for most of the community colleges. If the administration could wipe out 7th-grade math as a required expectation, then they'd be celebrated (they think) for being able to double graduation rates effectively overnight. And someone like Hacker is almost invaluable in giving them political cover for such a move.

Let's look at some recent evidence for who really benefits when math standards are reduced.
  • "My first time in a fifth grade in one of New Jersey’s most affluent districts (white, of course), I asked where one-third was on the number line. After a moment of quiet, the teacher called out, “Near three, isn’t it?” The children, however, soon figured out the correct answer; they came from homes where such things were discussed. Flitting back and forth from the richest to the poorest districts in the state convinced me that the mathematical knowledge of the teachers was pathetic in both. It appears that the higher scores in the affluent districts are not due to superior teaching in school but to the supplementary informal “home schooling” of children." -- Patricia Clark Kenschaft, "Racial equity requires teaching elementary school teachers more mathematics", Notices of AMS 52.2 (2005): 208-212.

  • "And while the proportion of American students scoring at advanced levels in math is rising, those gains are almost entirely limited to the children of the highly educated, and largely exclude the children of the poor. By the end of high school, the percentage of low-income advanced-math learners rounds to zero..." -- Peg Tyre, 'The Math Revolution", The Atlantic (March 2016).

That is: Cutting math standards only really cuts it for the poor. The rich will still make sure that their children have solid math skills at all levels. Or in other words: Cutting math standards increases inequality in education, and thus later economic status. And this folds into the overwhelming number of signs we've seen that math knowledge among our elementary-school teachers is perennially, pitifully weak, and a major cause of ongoing math deficiencies among our fellow citizens. 

I wonder: Is there any correlation between this and the crazy election cycle that we're experiencing now? Thanks to a close friends for the idea for the title to this article.


P.S. Here's Ed from the wonderful Gin and Tacos writing on the same subject today. I agree with every word, and he goes into more detail than I did here (frankly, Hacker's crap makes me so angry I can't read every part of what he says). Ed's a political science professor himself, and also plays drums, which makes me feel a bit bad that I threw any shade at all on the social sciences above. Be smart, be like Ed.


1 comment:

  1. Per Ed at Gin and Tacos (link above): Andrew Hacker is "the shittiest social scientist on Earth".

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