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20 Sep 2005 - 00:11 NYC HOLD, A major math mess by David Klein (registration required):
In March 2000, math specialists in Los Angeles Unified School District estimated that 60 percent of L.A.'s eighth-graders did not know the multiplication tables.
At Cal State Northridge (CSUN), where I am a math professor, many students enroll with mathematical skills below the fifth-grade level. Some of them do not know the multiplication tables and rely on calculators instead. Through spring semester 2002, the CSUN math department controlled the remedial math program. It was well-run by one of my colleagues, with a passage rate of 81 percent. The program was regarded as a model by other institutions. Given the weak math skills of entering students, it is hard to imagine a higher honest success rate. Here, unfortunately, is where racial politics enters the picture. The 81 percent passage rate - however impressive in context - was not high enough for the Pan African Studies and Chicana/o Studies departments at CSUN. Both departments wrote open letters denouncing the math department. Pan African Studies wrote on behalf "of black and brown student clientele regarding the structure of the program, the ambivalence and/or elitist attitudes of some of its instructors and the high failure rates in the developmental math courses." In criticizing the failure rate, Chicana/o Studies argued "that the math department has developed a culture that rejects students who are not math majors," and wrote, "the reaction of the math department is surprising since we believed that the university had progressed in the past 30 and some years." [snip] Besides citing the failure rate of 19 percent, the math department's critics gave no other evidence to support charges of racism, elitism or other accusations. Many of the remedial math instructors were themselves Latino, and all worked tirelessly to help the students, including tutoring outside of class. Not only did the math department have a paper trail to prove the effectiveness of its program, it also had extremely high student evaluations to match. Nevertheless, attempts by the math department to defend itself from charges of racial insensitivity, etc., were ignored by the CSUN administration. Control of the program was taken away from the math department - and now no one complains about passage rates. That's because the problem of remedial math education was solved largely by defining it out of existence. In academic circles, any suggestion of racial insensitivity or "whiteness" typically settles an argument in favor of the accuser, with no further questions asked. Unfortunately, not only is mathematics education susceptible to race-identity politics, it is also undermined by corporations and the federal government. Corporate foundations and federal bureaucrats have awarded multimillion-dollar grants for the development of math programs that include multicultural platitudes but which undermine arithmetic and algebra competence. Meanwhile, other CSUN policies also drive the cycle of remediation. Much to my chagrin, students on my campus are allowed to use calculators during the arithmetic final exam for future elementary-school teachers. Math professors who teach the arithmetic course for future elementary-school teachers, such as myself, are required to allow all students to use their calculators on the exam that tests their understanding of how and why arithmetic "works." The inescapable fact is that California expects more competence in arithmetic from its elementary-school students than CSUN expects from its future teachers. Since 1998, schoolchildren have not been allowed to use calculators on the state's annual standardized tests, and with good reason. Through its own policies, CSUN drives the cycle of remedial math by sending teachers into the field who sometimes lack proficiency in basic arithmetic. Many of the CSUN- trained elementary school teachers are highly qualified, excellent teachers, but others squeak through with teaching credentials in spite of not knowing arithmetic. Ethnic studies departments, corporate foundations and at least one Cal State University campus have found common cause in supporting educational programs that ultimately deprive California's future elementary school teachers of basic arithmetic skills. These misguided agendas should be confronted directly by the public and by its elected representatives.
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My maternal grandfather was a math teacher in El Salvador. He visited us in LA in the late 60s when I was in high school and tutored me in trigonometry. And I was in UCLA when he died at age 94 some time in the early 70s. This was when affirmative action was just beginning. About a year before he died he asked me how affirmative action worked and was suitably appalled at my explanation. Glad you aren't around to see how it has turned out, Gramps. SkookumChuk -- SkookumChuk - 20 Sep 2005
Hey! SkookumChuk! Are you alive??? Ever since Katrina hit, I've been thinking about you...... GO READ THE DALRYMPLE PIECE! Unbelievable. -- CatherineJohnson - 20 Sep 2005
Thomas Sowell's Affirmative Action Around the World is probably the best book ever written on the subject. It's a comparative study of preference systems globally; in short, they generally make things work. The thing that bothers me about the story isn't the question of affirmative action, though. What really gets under mys skin is that the remedial math program seems to be exactly what the civil rights groups should be supporting. There is an indisputable skills gap, so the math department decides to remedy it. By offering the intensive remediation, the minority students are able to catch up and pursue studies that would otherwise have been closed to them. Now that the program is gone, they've essentially been sent to an academic ghetto, with no hope of advancement. Instead of addressing a real problem, they decide to throw a sheet over it and pretend it doesn't exist - and in doing so, they make it worses. A more cynical person would say that exacerbating the gap is precisely the point, so that they can justify their existance. Fortunately, I'm not tha... oh, who am I kidding. I AM that cynical. -- IndependentGeorge - 20 Sep 2005
Hey Catherine - what Darymple piece? Skookumchuk -- SkookumChuk - 20 Sep 2005
Carolyn linked to it--in her Fighting the Good Fight post, I think. (Back in a minute) -- CatherineJohnson - 20 Sep 2005
The thing that bothers me about the story isn't the question of affirmative action, though. What really gets under mys skin is that the remedial math program seems to be exactly what the civil rights groups should be supporting. No kidding. Blacks & Hispanics in this country graduate 12th grade with the average skills of a white 8th grader. That is a scandal. And the scandal here is that it is Black Studies Departments & Hispanic Studies Departments that are making sure the gap isn't closed. -- CatherineJohnson - 21 Sep 2005
Not sure where this should go, but it definitely goes somewhere under the "HorrorStories" category. I found it while looking for info on XWindow developer tools for obsolete versions of Mac OS X. :) It's an essay called Learning to Be Stupid in the Culture of Cash, by Luciana Bohne.
You might think that reading about a Podunk University's English teacher's attempt to connect the dots between the poverty of American education and the gullibility of the American public may be a little trivial, considering we've embarked on the first, openly-confessed imperial adventure of senescent capitalism in the US, but bear with me. The question my experiences in the classroom raise is why have these young people been educated to such abysmal depths of ignorance. "I don't read," says a junior without the slightest self-consciousness. She has not the smallest hint that professing a habitual preference for not reading at a university is like bragging in ordinary life that one chooses not to breathe. She is in my "World Literature" class. She has to read novels by African, Latin American, and Asian authors. She is not there by choice: it's just a "distribution" requirement for graduation, and it's easier than philosophy -she thinks. The novel she has trouble reading is Isabel Allende's "Of Love and Shadows," set in the post-coup terror of Pinochet's junta's Nazi-style regime in Chile, 1973-1989. No one in the class, including the English majors, can write a focused essay of analysis, so I have to teach that. No one in the class knows where Chile is, so I make photocopies of general information from world guide surveys. No one knows what socialism or fascism is, so I spend time writing up digestible definitions. No one knows what Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" is, and I supply it because it's impossible to understand the theme of the novel without a basic knowledge of that work - which used to be required reading a few generations ago. -- GoogleMaster - 02 Mar 2006