The New Latin

Apr 7th, 2011

The New Latin

By: David N Plank | 07:04 AM | Categories: Assessment & Accountability

For more than 50 years education reformers have worried that American students were falling behind—successively—the Russians, Japanese, Chinese, Singaporeans, and Finns in their mastery of mathematics.  The passage of NDEA was spurred by the fear that the U.S. was falling behind in the space race, and the proposed remedy was improvement in math and science instruction. 
Current reformers express similar fears.  They worry about the numbers of engineers now being trained in China and India, and seek to increase the number of students prepared in the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields as a strategy for maintaining the nation’s competitive edge in the world economy.  Performance in mathematics is increasingly accepted as a critical—if not the key—indicator of educational success, both for students and for the nation as a whole.
Why should this be so?  Mathematics is certainly important for some prestigious occupations including engineering, economics, and derivatives trading, but it features far less prominently in most adult lives.  Basic numeracy including some familiarity with probability and statistics is necessary for informed citizenship, but this hardly accounts for the overwhelming importance assigned to mathematics in curriculum and policy debates.
Two other attributes of mathematics help to explain policy-makers’ focus on this subject at the expense of others.  First, mathematics is easy to measure.  Comparing performance in mathematics across countries is a relatively simple task, while comparing performance in other subjects (reading, history, science) is complicated by cross-national differences in language, culture, and curriculum.  American students’ math scores on international assessments offer a convenient and seemingly straightforward representation of their educational performance more generally, whether or not the portrayal is accurate.
Second, mathematics is hard to master, and student performance varies widely.  As a result, mathematics is well suited to sorting students into different curricular pathways and thus determining the distribution of educational opportunities and rewards.  Savvy parents make sure that their children are enrolled in advanced math courses, because they know that the rest of the course schedule is organized around these classes.  Competitive colleges expect their entering students to have completed calculus, not because prospective history or psychology majors will need advanced mathematical knowledge but because it is a straightforward way to restrict the pool of eligible candidates for admission.
In Europe for more than 500 years fluency in Latin was the mark of an educated person, and a requirement for some important occupations including divinity and diplomacy.  As in mathematics, proficiency in Latin was hard to acquire and easy to measure.  Mathematics is in many key respects the new Latin, useful as a marker of educational attainment and social status.  It is relevant to performance in some important occupations, but hardly central to the lives or job performance of most Americans.  The obsessive concern with students’ performance in mathematics in education policy debates is almost certainly misplaced.


A couple of thoughts in response to some terrific comments. To begin with, I fully endorse the idea that all students (including students in Economics at CSU) need some working acquaintance with basic mathematics, including not only the knowledge and skills ordinarily taught in Algebra I but also familiarity with statistics and probability. Many students (apparently including students in Economics at CSU) don't acquire this now, which is likely to be a major handicap in their lives as workers and citizens. This leads to two additional questions. First, what can we do to better ensure that ALL students master these knowledge and skills? Scott's observations on middle school math can provide some useful guidance as we move toward an answer to this question. Second, where do we draw the boundary between the mathematics that all students need to master and the more specialized topics that are necessary for success in STEM fields, economics, and finance? In California college readiness requires satisfactory performance in Algebra II, and admission to elite colleges including UC effectively requires completion of a course in calculus. As the policy conversation increasingly moves toward the adoption of "college for all" as a consensus goal I think it's worth asking whether we really believe that factoring polynomials or solving differential equations are foundational skills, essential for all students, or whether the effort that now goes into moving students through more and more mathematics might better be devoted to ensuring that they master some basic knowledge and skills.
One additional point: Jennifer Weisbart-Moreno is absolutely correct that good mathematics instruction is important not only because it teaches students mathematical knowledge and skills, but because it introduces them to critical and logical thinking and problem-solving skills. Interestingly, at least the first half of this argument was also made in defense of keeping Latin in the curriculum--mastery of Latin was assumed to be essential to abstract thinking and the pursuit of higher knowledge.

When taught and assessed appropriately, mathematical abilities does not only represent pure mathematics, but also critical and logical thinking and problem solving skills. These skills are important no matter what one's college major or occupation is.

David's important reflections are manifest in California's current policy debate on middle grades mathematics. Various inputs--8th grade Algebra being primary amongst them--suggest our collective hyper sensitivity to whether state education policy encourages a college-ready agenda for all students.

But we also know that this is a far more complicated matter. Teacher capacity and preparation for teaching mathematics is a crucial under-investment by the state. A state data system that provides far better and deeper longitudinal data about students and their year-over-year performance could yield finer-grained decisions about each student's readiness for the next year's mathematics content. Better alignment between K-12 academic standards and expectations from institutions of higher education and industry--including technical and professional schools--could satisfy David's concerns about the REAL needs students have for mathematics in their academic and professional careers.

There are signs that California is ready for a new discussion, and that's encouraging. I would suggest three areas of progress. First, the recent EdSource report on California's students and success (or lack of) in 8th grade mathematics provides a far more refined examination of the state's education policy for middle grades math. Second, the state's adoption of the Common Core standards should result in a more refined approach to mathematics content and instruction. Finally, it appears that California, along with many states, is finally ready for a mature conversation about how the unfolding revolution on digital learning--whether it be online, accessing core content, supplemental materials, or open source--can help the state satisfy its obligation to support all students. Nice work, David.

"hardly central to the lives or job performance of most Americans" - hmmm, I may have to disagree with you here, David. Of course, I also spent two hours today working with college students who have a seriously questionable grip on basic algebra so maybe I should wait a couple days before commenting :-). But while I understand why many people think math is not 'central' to their lives, I actually think basic numeracy is much more important than is commonly recognized. Certainly not all students need to know calculus but on any given day, newspapers are reporting stories about scientific studies, or polling results, or changes in the unemployment rate and part of being an informed citizen is being able to understand what these stories are really saying. And of course, comfort, if not proficiency, with math and numbers is a prerequisite for success in many of the technology-related fields that are growing fastest.

What I WILL take issue with is the way math is taught. It seems that it is a rare math teacher who can get students to see the USEFULNESS of math, who can actually show students WHY they need math. I won't blame it on standardized tests since I think math has probably been taught in the same way for decades. But part of the problem I see with my college students is that even when they can do the algebra, they are really not used to "X" actually meaning something they might care about. So I would argue that it isn't so much that our need to be less concerned with student performance in math in general but perhaps we need to be less concerned with whether students can do *meaningless* math problems and more concerned with whether students have solid numeracy skills.