Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The new 3 Rs: reading, writing, recriminations.

Every so often, when I stumble across some new critique of my book or hear intelligent, influential people line up behind some key SHAM element, the unease kicks in and I start to wonder if I'm overreaching with regard to self-help's wider effects on society. Then along comes a headline like the following, which appeared above an opinion piece in my daily paper, The Morning Call, just before I left for Vegas:


To be honest, at first glance, I figured one of two things was going on: (a), the piece was comic relief, a good-natured swipe at the difficulty of today's math classes. Most opinion sections like to run such pieces now and then, as a much-needed break from the hand-wringing over Iraq, Exxon's obscene profits and the like. But that seemed unlikely here, since everyone knows how poorly U.S. students rate in math achievement among free-world countries; our math classes (and science classes as well, for that matter) don't exactly force students to stretch. So that left (b): The headline was a purposeful attention-getter. The Call's editorial-section manager, Glenn Kranzley, is a very fine editor for whom I myself have written on numerous occasions. And like all savvy editors, Glenn reserves the right to exercise editorial license in crafting headlines that may be somewhat more provocative than the actual content of the associated stories. So assuming the piece wasn't in category (a), I thought that's what had happened here. Until I read the author's opening line:

"Do we need a Megan's Law or an 'Amber Alert' to protect our children in grades K-12 from the dysfunctional world of math education in America?"


As I moved through the essay, which I can no longer link (it's archived, and you have to pay for such content), I realized that the author, local parent Dana Guerra, was herself being a bit rhetorically sly, using the "child abuse" motif as a thought-provoking metaphor. But her basic line of argument remains: that by failing to prepare students for the rigors they know they'll encounter in college, elementary schools are not just traumatizing kids but, yes, willfully mistreating them. At one point Guerra refers to today's math students as "young human tragedies" whose parents are "rising up against this academic child abuse" (thus, Glenn's ready-made title).

Victims, victims everywhere! We've learned to label just about everything we don't like as abuse, even when the things we're attacking are formal policies enacted after sober-minded discussion by duly appointed, well-meaning officials. Above all, where our kids are concerned, we focus so intensely on their emotional well-being* that when we find something that causes them pain, we start screaming "abuse!", as Guerra does here. (I suppose that flawed curricula may signal a certain detachment, perhaps even neglect. But abuse? We need an academic Megan's Law? As my old pal Dr. Phil would say, get real....) It has been pointed out by Wendy Kaminer, David Blankenhorn and others that when you call everything abuse, what you ultimately succeed in doing is leaching the term of its power: If all the wheels squeak, how do you know which one really needs service? Then we have the students themselves. Do they bear no responsibility for working hard and at least mastering the lowest-common-denominator (NPI) math they're now being taught? Heck, American kids aren't even doing that, if SAT scores and other objective metrics count at all.**

Finally, and on an unrelated front: I know it's considered good clean fun to make jokes at the expense of our neighbors to the north, but I say you just gotta love 'em. Especially since they seem inclined to buy SHAM at the drop of a hat—or the drop of a few well-placed quotes. I'm told that early this week, the aforementioned article in Maclean's had SHAM in the top 1500 again on the above-border version of Amazon. It remains at 5,800 at this writing. Canadians were also one of the strongest markets for the book when it was first released in summer 2005. And so I hope you'll all join me in a rousing chorus of... "Ohhhh, Can-ada..." (Now if only I could get more Americans to read it.)

* And of course, this obsessive, moment-to-moment hypersensitivity to our emotional well-being, and that of the people we love, is something else for which we can thank the self-help movement.
** See SHAM chapter 10 for more detail on this point. Also, tragicomic true story: I once knew a kid who got 650 on the verbal and 470 on the math. He then added the two subtotals and got a final SAT score of—1020. Personally, I think that being able to successfully add the individual components of your SAT exam should be a final requirement before receiving a high-school diploma. Then again, it's not as easy as it used to be: There are now three such components, with the addition of an essay section a few years ago.


a/good/lysstener said...

Again I know I'm a little off from your main point with this comment, but you think college students are any better at math? Most of the people I know use their cells or PDAs to figure tips, and it's not just because it's more convenient that way. And once again I actually think that does go to your main point, because we were the first generation allowed to use calculators to make things "easier" for us. Instead of forcing us to meet the bar, they lowered the bar to ease the way for us. Now we rely on the technological tools to do what we can'do in our heads anymore. Like the vestigal (did I spell that right?) thumbs on some species of monkeys, I seriously think for a alot of us, that part of our brains is falling into disuse.

Cosmic Connie said...

Gotta love those Canadians, Steve. But I think the Canadians and the Brits are overall less susceptible to SHAM hype than we 'Mercans.

Alyssa makes a good point about how dependent we've all become on our machines. I was never good at math, but at least I knew how to make change (without a machine) back in the days when I was working retail. Now that sales mean *associates* have the registers to figure the change for them, they just shove a wad of money in your hand and whisk you out of the way so they can get to the next customer. It's considered poor form to stand there and count your money to make sure you weren't short-changed.

And gee, I wish they'd had the essay section back when I was taking my SAT. I would have aced it, I'm sure. As it was, I had a near-perfect in English and an embarrassingly low score in math. But it wasn't for my math teachers' lack of trying. I had some excellent math teachers in high school who were truly passionate about their subject. I'm afraid that my brain just isn't wired for numbers.

Steve Salerno said...

I think you both make good points here. I struggle with this issue myself: the whole calculator/no calculator, tools/no tools debate. I hate to say this yet again--because it's almost like saying nothing--but it comes down to balance. And balance is a nigh impossible concept around which to construct the likes of a syllabus, because it's so terribly subjective--WHOSE balance? and what IS balance anyway?--and the chosen program is bound to have a vastly different impact on each student, depending on what he or she brings to the table (e.g. Connie and her non-mathematical brain). How do you arrive at a curricular plan that challenges students without intimidating them (I DO very much believe that it's critical to make a child's introduction to learning a pleasant experience) while also building in accommodations for individual differences and tastes? How far do we go in meeting the student on his own terms, within the generally accepted tradition of forcing that student to meet certain established benchmarks?

Whew. I don't know about you, but I'm totally out of breath. Now I know why I didn't go into education.

Apropos of all this, I read an interesting quote about education from actor Will Smith, in a long interview he gave to Reader's Digest, I believe. (I read it on the plane.) I found him highly thoughtful, engaging and persuasive, and though at times he wandered a bit too far into empowerment for my tastes, I agreed with almost everything he said about the goals of learning (among other things, he thinks all kids should be required to read Plato's "Republic" as early as possible in life), until he made some remark about how "it's not important for kids to know the date of the Boston Tea Party" or some such. Though I guess I know what he means, the remark brought me up short, and I'm not quite sure why. Anyway, just thought I'd throw it out there.

Cosmic Connie said...

I happen to have a copy of the December RD in the bathroom, and here's the Will Smith quote in its entirety: "The things that have been most valuable to me I did not learn in school. Traditional education is based on facts and figures and passing tests – not on a comprehension of the material and its application to your life. Jada and I homeschool our children because the date of the Boston Tea Party does not matter."

I agree with what he's saying, up to a point, but I do think kids need a good basic grasp of the timeline of events. They at least need to know the century in which the event took place, and the major historical events that happened around the same time. Smith does seem to agree with the RD interviewer that the basics -- reading, writing and arithmetic -- still need to be taught.

Anonymous said...

That's the Steve we know and love, finding fault with everything.

RevRon's Rants said...

Yet he's willing to put his name on his opinions. I have been known to disagree with him at times, but never felt the need to snipe from the shadows, as some posters seem to prefer. It's just so much more fun when you can "see" who you disagree with, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

I think homeschooling is far more damaging to children than a bad education--it limits their exposure to others who are unlike themselves, at the only time of life when they're likely to be open to that experience, and also limits them to learning their parents' (inevitably limited) beliefs. Parents should "homeschool" their children in good manners and good morals, and send them off to school.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Rev, there's a difference between disagreeing with Steve's opinions and attacking Steve himself. Surely if someone has a personal axe to grind they could do it in a more private forum!

Matt said...

My daughter is 7 years-old. Last year I taught her addition and subtraction using the tens place columns, carrying the one, etc.

This year the school is getting around to double-digit arithmetic and they use the cutest little tools. They have the "math machine" that performs the operation (like adding 12), and you have to place a bunch of lines and dots (representing tens and units) into the math machine and out pops an answer (ie - the original number plus 12).

Well it's cute, but it's also crap. Total crap.

She was frustrated, didn't understand why there was a machine, didn't get any further in learning what a tens' place actually is, and yet she can do the actual math. At this stage in primary education, she needds to learn the basic language of math -- subtraction and addition -- so she can move on later. And learning it through rote abstraction is perfectly fine. And she gets it.

And this machine stuff is just getting in the way. So I agree with you that it robs us of precision in language if we are to call this math machine a rape of my daughter's ability to learn math, but I must also completely agree with Guerro that we are doing a grave disservice to our children by not requiring them to learn the basics of math before we try to inject a little context. Context without language is worthless.

Trish Ryan said...

Math sucks for a lot of us, so education is about learning ways to cope in a world that includes some (although FAR less than my algebra teacher threatened) math to make it spin. And to cope, you need to know the basic theory of what you're shooting for. I agree with Alyssa that certain parts of our brains are falling into disuse. Rather sad.