Posted in Rants on March 3rd, 2016 by Ed

Rarely am I moved to revive the FJM Treatment these days, as it tends to be very labor-intensive to write and it's not often that I have the time. But when Mike Konczal – Those of you who have been around forever remember him, and those who haven't probably know his current work – shared this article with the baiting tagline, "Algebra II Has To Go", I felt the urge stirring inside me. Understand two things: One is that I realize I am falling for Outrage Bait here; sites like Slate push this stuff purporting to be "edgy" mostly in the hopes of getting people to share it socially and vent about how dumb it is. The second is that Mike approached this from the perspective of someone who has taken a lot of very high level math in his academic life and no doubt accurately points out that much of it has never been useful beyond college.

The problem is that this article isn't about high level math. It's about algebra, and its author Dana Goldstein has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the arguments of one person with an agenda to sell books about "curriculum reform" that only excite administrators looking to boost retention by identifying and then justifying the elimination of whatever courses are too difficult for students to pass. As a faculty member, I see this very differently because the motives are very transparent to me. I read a noble proposition like "What's wrong with improving the curriculum to include more useful math?" as a stalking horse that quickly ends up pressed into service of the least noble motives. Are you ready? It has been a while, but hopefully you'll agree that it's time. Some of this is excised for length and irrelevance.

In his new book The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, political scientist Andrew Hacker proposes replacing algebra II and calculus in the high school and college curriculum with a practical course in statistics for citizenship (more on that later). Only mathematicians and some engineers actually use advanced math in their day-to-day work, Hacker argues — even the doctors, accountants, and coders of the future shouldn’t have to master abstract math that they’ll never need.


Algebra II is "advanced math"? Nobody needs to know Algebra unless they're designing a rocket engine or mapping the human genome? Isn't a sequence in Algebra, like, a rather basic component of math education? Gee I'd hate to think the authors are using an argument – a valid argument – against taking advanced calculus as a red herring here.

I showed the book to my husband, Andrei, a computer programmer who loved math in school. He scrunched up his face. “People don’t use Shakespeare in their jobs, but it’s still important for them to read it,” he said.

I like Andrei. Andrei seems to understand the educational system and its purpose.

“It’s not the same,” I told him. “Reading fiction builds empathy.”

“Math helps us understand the world around us!” Andrei replied. “Like how derivatives demonstrate change over time.” He smiled, and I could tell that for him, it was all clear and beautiful.

But I had no idea what he was talking about. In high school, I found math so indecipherable that I would sometimes cry over my homework. I don’t think I ever understood what a derivative signified 15 years ago, when I was struggling my way to a low B in calculus—a class I was convinced I had to take to pad my college applications.

Oh good. I'm glad we're establishing from the outset that the basis of this article is "I don't get it, so it's not necessary."


So Hacker’s book is deeply comforting. I’m not alone, it tells me—lots of smart people hate math. The reason I hated math, was mediocre at it, and still managed to earn a bachelor’s degree was because I had upper-middle-class parents who paid for tutoring and eventually enrolled me in a college that doesn’t require math credits in order to graduate.

This is impressive self-awareness. The author recognizes that she finds this argument appealing not because it has merit but because she hates math and thought math was hard. Glad we're all on the same page now.

For low-income students, math is often an impenetrable barrier to academic success. Algebra II, which includes polynomials and logarithms, and is required by the new Common Core curriculum standards used by 47 states and territories, drives dropouts at both the high school and college levels. The situation is most dire at public colleges, which are the most likely to require abstract algebra as a precondition for a degree in every field, including art and theater.


How many colleges require anything beyond the most basic type of two-course math sequence, one or both of which can be satisfied by having taken "college level" math courses of dubious rigidity in high school? I guess Slate doesn't make its writers look up numbers on these things. My experience has been that what college level math is required is often required with some kind of massive loophole such as the ability to fulfill the obligation with specially created, easy to pass "Math for Poets" type classes designed to keep the tuition dollars students enrolled.

“We are really destroying a tremendous amount of talent—people who could be talented in sports writing or being an emergency medical technician, but can’t even get a community college degree,” Hacker told me in an interview. “I regard this math requirement as highly irrational.”

Community college math classes are too difficult? Hmm. That would point to getting very little math in high school, not too much, Mr. Iconoclast. This literally differs not one bit from arguing that someone would make a great EMT if only they didn't have to take some stupid class they can't pass about Shakespeare or psychology or hey this is fun you could put the name of any course in here and the appropriately-surnamed Hacker's argument works!

Unlike most professors who publicly opine about the education system, Hacker, though an eminent scholar, teaches at a low-prestige institution, Queens College, part of the City University of New York system. Most CUNY students come from low-income families, and a 2009 faculty report found that 57 percent fail the system’s required algebra course. A subsequent study showed that when students were allowed to take a statistics class instead, only 44 percent failed.

"When these students had to take a basic math course, slightly over half failed. When we let them take another course that for all anyone knows was designed to be easier to pass so we could keep our retention rates up…slightly under half failed." Sounds like Hacker is an "eminent scholar" in some field that isn't statistics. Oh wait, he's a political scientist. So he should be well aware of how stupid this argument is. And he has taught at the university level for quite some time, so he also knows how deceptive it is. And that he's basically just arguing "We should let them take statistics because apparently it's easier for them to pass," which is the worst possible argument for why they should take statistics instead of math.

Math in this case, just to remind you, is algebra.

Such findings inspired Hacker, in 2013, to create a curriculum to test the ideas he presents in The Math Myth. For two years, he taught what is essentially a course in civic numeracy. Hacker asked students to investigate the gerrymandering of Pennsylvania congressional districts by calculating the number of actual votes Democrats and Republicans received in 2012. The students discovered that it took an average of 181,474 votes to win a Republican seat, but 271,970 votes to win a Democratic seat. In another lesson, Hacker distributed two Schedule C forms, which businesses use to declare their tax-deductible expenses, and asked students to figure out which form was fabricated. Then he introduced Benford’s Law, which holds that in any set of real-world numbers, ones, twos, and threes are more frequent initial digits than fours, fives, sixes, sevens, eights, and nines. By applying this rule, the students could identify the fake Schedule C. (The IRS uses the same technique.)

In his 19-person numeracy seminar, the lowest grade was a C, Hacker says.

Wow. Where to start. OK, so this "civic numeracy" course, designed by Hacker himself and which based on the examples he chose to give involves nothing beyond addition, subtraction, division, and the ability to read English and numbers, produced 19 passing grades when Andrew Hacker taught said class (and awarded the grades, so you know it was super objective because he certainly had no motivation to prove his point, right?). Does anyone know if 19 is a sufficient sample size? I guess they didn't cover "sample size" in "civic numeracy."

Look, I'll be the first one to agree that a class where students learn how to read and interpret statistics is valuable. I teach this very material in a Political Science Research Methods course. It's important. And it is in no way an argument against the value of taking actual math. The sole motivation behind requiring it instead of math is that too many students now are failing math.

Or are they? Who knows, neither the author of this article nor apparently the shittiest social scientist on Earth bothered telling us if students are failing math more regularly today than in the past. That would be important to establish, right? Or else he/she have no argument, right?

Hacker’s previous book, Higher Education? How Universities Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, took a dim view of the tenured professoriate, and he extends that perspective in The Math Myth. Math professors, consumed by their esoteric, super-specialized research, simply don’t care very much about the typical undergraduate, Hacker contends.

Ahh, OK. Finally we've established that Hacker makes his living publishing (presumably not without compensation) books pissing on academia. I know this type well. Bet he's real popular with his colleagues between his open minded approach to curriculum and his outstanding argumentation skills.

Math professors, consumed by their esoteric, super-specialized research, simply don’t care very much about the typical undergraduate, Hacker contends. At universities with graduate programs, tenure-track faculty members teach only 10 percent of introductory math classes. At undergraduate colleges, tenure-track professors handle 42 percent of introductory classes. Graduate students and adjuncts shoulder the vast majority of the load, and they aren’t inspiring many students to continue their math education. In 2013, only 1 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded were in math.

None of this is remotely relevant to the value of making students take basic algebra. Not even a little. These numbers are here to distract you. I thought we were making a "should" argument about the value of stats-as-math-alternative? Now we've progressed to simply grousing about academia.

“In a way, math departments throughout the country don’t worry,” Hacker says. “They have big budgets because their classes are required, so they keep on going.”

This is the least true thing anyone has written today, and today was the day after Donald Trump all but secured the GOP nomination. What's actually happening, not that Hacker would bother to do any research here, is that math departments are piling more courses on tenured or tenure track faculty (not necessarily introductory courses – note the key adjective he uses) to save money, and also hiring more adjuncts to teach the less demanding courses to save money.

What an excellent example of how to deceive with numbers. Is this in the "civic numeracy" book?

After Hacker previewed the ideas in The Math Myth in a 2012 New York Times op-ed, the Internet lit up with responses accusing him of anti-intellectualism. At book length, it’s harder to dismiss his ideas.

I'm dubious.

He has a deep respect for what he calls the “truth and beauty” of math; his discussion of the discovery and immutability of pi taught me more about the meaning of 3.14 than any class I’ve ever taken.

I bet he does, and I'm sure it did. That's not saying much, per the author's opening comments.

As a longtime education reporter, I know that American teachers, especially those in the elementary grades, have taken few math courses themselves, and often actively dislike the subject. Maybe I would have found abstract math more enjoyable if my teachers had been able to explain it better, perhaps by connecting it somehow to the real world. And if that happened in every school, maybe lots more American kids, even low-income ones, would be able to make the leap from arithmetic to the conceptual mathematics of algebra II and beyond.

Well, a decent social scientist could tell you that since K-12 teachers are so regularly and viciously shit on, not to mention underpaid and regularly threatened by state legislatures with further reductions in benefits and pay, nobody really wants to major in Education. So Education gets the students – Sorry, but if we're going to generalize here, this is accurate… – who can't succeed in any other major. And it gives them a 4.0 in courses specifically designed to be passed by students who are not very academically capable.

Search your heart. You know it to be true.

Of course, if math teachers are to help students understand how abstract concepts (EDIT: Examples omitted) function in the real world, they will have to understand those abstractions themselves. So it’s not reassuring that American teachers are a product of the same sub-par math education system they work in, or that we hire 100,000 to 200,000 new teachers each year at a time when less than 20,000 people are majoring in math annually.

OK so, to recap: Math is too hard because most K-12 students get a bad math education because teachers don't take much math in college, so let's require even less math in college.

Goddamn brilliance.

Could better teachers help more students pass algebra II? Given high student debt, low teacher pay, and the historically low status of the American teaching profession, it would be a tough road. In the meantime, it’s probably a good idea to give students multiple math pathways toward high school and college graduation—some less challenging than others. If we don’t, we’ll be punishing kids for the failures of an entire system.

Wait, what? So this isn't about offering a better alternative at all, then. It's explicitly about offering something easier. Easier and Better are very different, just FYI. "Poor kids have a disadvantage, so let's teach them less and lower the bar for them because the system failed them." Because the system failed them, obviously the system must fail for them. Makes sense.

Make no mistake about this whole trainwreck of an argument, folks: This is about retention rates and tuition dollars. The vast majority of postsecondary institutions in this country are under enrollment and financial stress right now and they are desperate to both attract and retain students. The internal pressure to lower subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly the bar to keep another paying customer in the fold is consistent and nearly universal outside of the top 0.01% of elite institutions. We need bodies and we need revenue. That fact doesn't make higher education Evil. The bad part would be pretending we're changing the curriculum for the students' benefit when in reality we are doing it to extract more revenue out of them. This is nothing but marketing speak for lowering the standards while pretending that we're not doing exactly that.