Math Instruction Doesn't Add Up

It's time to tell students the truth, writes James E. Rosenbaum in American Educator: If you do poorly in high school, you'll do poorly in college and on the job. A useful sidebar explains what you need to do in high school to be successful.

The vast majority of high school seniors say they plan to get a college degree. Yet less than 40 percent will earn a two or four-year degree. Success is linked closely to high school performance: While 64 percent of "A" students with college plans earn a two-year or higher degree, only 14 percent of college-bound seniors with averages of "C" or lower earn any sort of degree. Half of the "C" and "D" students will not earn a single college credit. They'll take remedial classes and then give up.

Almost 40 percent of college-bound students “believed that school effort had little relevance for their future careers," writes Rosenbaum, a Northwestern professor. Wrong. “Over half the students who do more than 10 hours of homework a week will get a four-year college degree; only about 16 percent of those doing less than three hours of homework a week will earn a bachelor's degree.”

For students who go directly into the workforce, high school grades predict pay. "B" students earn considerably more than "C" students.

Let Math Be Math

The Connected Math curriculum is controversial in Madison, Wisc., — especially with parents who are mathematicians. The Capital Times compares a problem for seventh graders.

A gas station sells soda in three sizes. A 20-ounce cup costs 80 cents, a 32-ounce cup is 90 cents and a 64-ouncer goes for $1.25.

Traditional: What size offers the most soda for the money?

Connected: If the gas station were to offer an 84-ounce Mega Swig, what would you expect to pay for it?

A student, for instance, could argue that the 84-ouncer would cost what the 20-ounce and 64-ounce cups cost together. Another student could say that soda gets cheaper with volume, and then choose an answer based on some per-ounce price slightly less than what was given for the 64-ounce drink.

Or a student could skip calculating the per-ounce prices and just pick a number: $1.50 seems about right.

On one side, those who support Connected Math say that engaging students by presenting problems as real-life scenarios, often with no absolute solution or single path to arrive at an answer, fosters innovation and forces students to explain and defend their reasoning as they discover mathematical concepts.

The other side says the approach trades the clear, fundamental concepts of math, distilled through thousands of years of logical reasoning, for verbiage and vagary that may help students learn to debate but will not give them the foundation they need for more advanced mathematical study.

. . . University of Wisconsin-Madison math and computer science Professor Jin-Yi Cai is a critic.

"It goes around and around and things never really get down to the really crisp, elegant, basic fundamental principles," Cai said of the Connected Math texts.

"It takes away the elegance, it takes away the beauty, it takes away the most basic logic structure. And the students are left with a vague, touchy-feely idea," he said.

Cai and UW-Madison mathematician Melania Alvarez, who is running for school board, also object to all the essay writing required by Connected Math. Writing isn't math, they say.

My algebra teacher, Miss Diedrick, said that math is a language of its own.

X + Y = ?

Starting this year, California students are supposed to pass algebra to earn a high school diploma, but many districts are seeking waivers. That includes districts that made algebra a graduation requirement years ago, yet never really enforced it.

The requirement has forced schools to get serious about teaching algebra. For one thing, flunkers get better teachers, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

At Milpitas High School, Lam Le — who has taught mathematics at the college level — teaches two classes of beginning algebra.

Le inherited several students who were failing but says she has only one F student now.

In her class, students actually start work before the bell rings. And they don't start to pack up until it rings again. “Math takes discipline, and clear direction,'' Le said.

...Several students in her class said they support the requirement linking algebra to graduation, despite their struggles. “If you don't know how to do math, you can't get a good job,'' said Jouit Soliano, who came from the Philippines last year.

California's standards call for students to learn algebra in eighth grade. Yet the graduation exam was postponed because so many students were flunking the math portion of the test, which required only a 55 percent. Only the hardest questions required high school math skills.

David Klein, a math professor at Cal State-Northridge, writes about California's math mess. At his campus, the ethnic studies departments run remedial math classes in which everyone passes. Klein teaches an arithmetic class for future elementary teachers, who are allowed to use calculators on the arithmetic exam.

Engineering Is Expendable

San Francisco State's president, forced to cut the budget, is threatening to close the School of Engineering, writes Debra Saunders in the Chronicle. Raza Studies, Recreational and Leisure Studies and Women Studies would remain, preparing students for...Well, leisure studies will come in handy for the permanently unemployed. The Institute on Sexuality, Social Inequality and Health is not threatened. Saunders writes:

It makes you wonder if the guys in Engineering should rename their discipline. You know, call it The School of Engineering, Structural Inequality and Disparity Dynamics. Even better: The School of Social Engineering.

Some 700 engineering students would be out of luck if SF State dumps the department.


Stephen Chastain of Maine says:

I just graduated with a mechanical engineering degree and agree that the U.S. math and science skills are virtually worthless. The mechanical engineering department is scrambling every year to find qualified students. As a result, at least 70 percent of them are foreign nationals with the majority being Indian. They are there because they are the best in the world, not because of the government dumbing down the program. In contrast, U.S. students are suing to get into law school. What does that tell you about national priorities? Is there any wonder why jobs are going overseas?

Willard Smith of Aurora, Il., says:

In the midst of a four-year technical recession, where tens of thousands of experienced engineers have been out of work for more than two years, the notion that high-tech companies cannot find extremely competent people in the United States is laughable.

Greg Rupper writes:

Reform K12 claims that if Indian programmers demanded U.S. wages they would be out of work. I used to work for a company that recruited programmers from India. They were paid U.S. wages. They were all good programmers. Our office stopped recruiting from India only because our company opened an engineering office in India. U.S. companies are perfectly willing to pay Indian programmers U.S. wages if necessary.

As to poor math and science education, most U.S. high schools only require two years of math. The electrical engineering degree that I got assumed that the students would take calculus in their first year of college. There is no way that a student can be ready to take calculus with only two years of high school math.

Engineering is based on physics. Physics is taught in the language of calculus. All of the high school physical science classes that try to teach science without even using algebra are a joke. I believe you can teach more science with your mouth taped shut then you can without writing any equations.

The main reason why we fail at math and science is not because we don't know how to teach math and science. The problem is that we don't try. If we required high school students to take the math necessary to understand science, then they would learn the material, and be ready to pursue high-tech careers. But, given the choice of taking math or another elective class, many students chose other classes. (Even I have to admit that math is boring. You need a lot of math before it really becomes useful.)

If we want to improve math and science, we need to teach math. It’s that simple.

Chuck Mobley of Douglasville, Ga., writes:

I have a BS in engineering, an MBA, graduate-level statistics coursework, and experience as a U.S. Navy officer. I've been out of work since December, 2001. When my son dropped out of college to work at Best Buy, I just smiled and wished him luck. I certainly couldn't admonish him the way my father would have.

By the way, in my last job, a software development position, most of my co-workers were Indians here on work visas. They weren't that smart, and were very hard to collaborate with, because they saved collaboration for their own kind. If project managers think they can work collaboratively with these people across eleventy-seven time zones, they're going to be very disappointed.

I believed in the ideal of education bringing success in life. I am very disappointed.

Satvik Patel of Grayson, Ga., says:

I have experienced math and science education in both India and in America. When I studied in India, we were not allowed to use calculators. Every math problem had to be done by hand. And once I came to America, I found that my fellow students even for the simplest problems would whip out their calculators. We have become so dependent on these gadgets that we find it difficult to function without one. The students and professionals in India were trained to think with their brains, not their gadgets. This I believe gives them an edge when it comes to jobs and doing them efficiently.

Mark Loper of Jax, Fla., says:

The argument that high tech companies outsource because of poor math and science skills on the part of American workers is just another excuse. I have an aeronautical engineering degree and I have worked in software development the last 15 years. Never during that time was I required to know or perform math or science anywhere near the level that I learned in school. I had about seven semesters of calculus and beyond, yet I never needed anything more than algebra and a little trig.

Companies outsource for one reason — cheap labor. And any other excuse is a lie.

Rich Lewis writes:

I taught eighth grade Language Arts almost eight years ago. I left after two years, because I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Most of my students began eighth grade at a sixth grade reading level. There was only so much I could do to prepare them for the Connecticut Mastery Tests each October. The problem was multiplied by consistent behavior problems and a lack of support from parents and the administration. I worked at least 75 hours each week; I made $29,000 per year.

I now make well over $100,000 each year. I don’t work nearly as hard as I did when I was a teacher. We are losing an entire generation of teachers because the compensation does not match the requirements for the job. George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” is a nice slogan, but it can’t erase 15 years of decline. There are too many good teachers leaving the profession for myriad reasons including low wages, violence, unattainable standards, lack of support from parents, lack of support from administration, and just a complete lack of respect.

The real problem is that there are too many kids per classroom, and the children are more unruly then ever. Parents do not teach their children how to behave in a classroom setting. Parents do not teach their children to respect adults. Parents do not spend enough time helping their children with homework. Parents do not spend enough time with their children in general.

Unfortunately, this problem can not be solved with money. Dramatically increasing teachers’ salaries will help to attract and retain top talent, which will lead to creative teaching and higher test scores. But, the real problem is a complete lack of parental involvement. We need someone to teach the parents how to raise their children in an environment that’s more conducive to academic success.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at She’s writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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