cazort: crazy-pages: What the fuck is wrong with US math education? I just tutored a soon-to-be…



What the fuck is wrong with US math education?

I just tutored a soon-to-be business major who will be taking over their family business one day and they -no joke- struggled with the concept of how to multiply 3×1/2. Not the specific result, that’s understandable when people have dyscacula and I wouldn’t knock someone for that, but the concept. They struggled with the concept. Nor could they grasp X-2X. Or 1-2. Or 1×3 (no joke).

Which I mean, that’s kind of shocking and it’s bad for that person, cus being that math illiterate is crippling in modern society and all that. But my job is a tutor isn’t to pass judgments on math skills, it’s to improve them. So I wouldn’t be griping about that all on its own. No, what I’m taking issue with is the fact that this person apparently made it all the way through Calculus 1 in high school. (And before you ask, I checked, their higher level skills were no better). And given what I know about the college I work at, which has an arrangement by which rich people at this college can offload math classes onto an online college with a ridiculously easy to cheat system (I swear it’s intentionally designed that way), this person will get their business major as is.

I don’t have time this morning to go into all the ways in which this shit happens and how someone like this one gets so far and will continue to get a degree in a financial profession without ever learning any math ever. I just wanted to generally despair about the state of the US education system and how undervalued this makes education credentials in the United States.

I’ve taught math at the college level, intro calculus, and students routinely got into my class who lacked skills as basic as adding fractions.

I see several causes of things like this:

  • The system puts immense pressure on people to “progress through” it, i.e. getting all the records and grades on paper. At the college level, there are, sometimes dire financial consequences to not doing so. (having to pay for an extra semester or year, losing a scholarship, etc.)
  • The testing system is always imperfect and often rewards people who guess and/or fake their way through a problem, assignment, or test, giving them high scores when they get lucky and get answers and/or methods correct, and giving partial credit. There is often no additional reward for students who show clarity of thought or the ability to explain their reasoning more thoroughly. Students who leave answers blank are punished severely with zero scores, and the grading system in the U.S., skewed towards the high end of scores (90-A, 80-B, 70-C, 60-D, 59 and down – F) severely punishes students who leave answers blank or admit that they don’t know something.
  • The fast pace of education often gives little opportunity for people to go back and correct mistakes, master earlier material they are struggling with, or review fundamentals.
  • The “one-size-fits-all” setup forces everyone to go through at the same place. Some students who might initially have stronger backgrounds or abilities than others, get bored and zone out because the class is going too slowly for them, and then end up missing essentials and falling behind later. Other students are so far behind that they give up, and just trying to “get through” a class.

I think all of these problems could be solved. The way we teach many subjects, especially math, in the U.S. is not very efficient and often not very effective.

I think a reform of the grading system so that we’re not rewarding “effort” as much, yet we are rewarding saying “I don’t know”, can be helpful for spotting weak points and encouraging people to actually understand something, and discouraging them from faking it. I’ve had some professors who have a grading system in which a correct answer gets full credit, leaving the answer gets partial credit or zero credit, and incorrect answers get zeros or negative points. The grading system is then calibrated on a lower scale so it’s still relatively easy to get a B or so. The effect of this is to discourage faking it and guessing, and instead incentivize thorough mastery of the material.

I also think that “less is more” could help. If we tried to cover less material in each course, but covered it more thoroughly and made sure people had really mastered it, I think very quickly as we got to higher-level subjects that built off the earlier material, we’d actually be able to progress more quickly.

I also think we would benefit from more diversity in pace, which could be achieved within the current educational model by having courses that counted as “high-level” or “full” courses, but were spread over a longer time period. In the status quo, what we get instead is a watered-down or “easier” version of a class…for example, there is “math for scientists and engineers” which is harder, covers more material, and has all open-form tests, and then there is “math for business and ‘softer’ majors” which often has multiple choice tests and covers less material. But both courses take the same pace. This is bad because it excludes people from going into science or math or engineering, who might be good at it in the long-run, but take longer to master the material. It also creates a lot of people who have shallow knowledge of a subject and don’t know all the details, which hurts them if they later go on to study a subject that builds off it.

We can solve these problems! I think the main thing is that we need to try!

At least in the primary and secondary grades I’ve had experience with over the last few decades I think a big issue is a political movement that has devalued, demonized, and defunded public education. This has caused increased class sizes, pressure to promote students who haven’t learned the material, and a tyranny of standardized testing and “teaching to the test”.

It sucks. And it’s the kind of suckage that will keep on sucking for a generation or longer.

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Tags: i don't have a solution, I'm kind of in a bad place lately, need to address that.

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