I’m watching my older son tackle algebra now, and thinking about how over the course of my life, I’ve used exactly none of the math I learned after arithmetic. I hated math, and knew early on that whatever I did with my life and career, it wasn’t going to have a thing to do with higher mathematics.

Math teacher Gary Rubinstein adores mathematics, but says that education reformers’ obsession with how poorly American students do on math, and the supposed need to add more rigor to math instruction, is badly misguided. Excerpts:

Two hundred years ago, students who finished high school learned about as much Mathematical content as modern fifth graders learn today.  And over the past two hundred years, topics were gradually added to the curriculum until the textbooks have become giant bloated monstrosities.  And though the modern high schooler ‘learns’ Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II and Trigonometry, Statistics, and maybe even Precalculus and Calculus, the average adult still only remembers about as much as the adults from two hundred years ago did, or about what the average fifth grader is supposed to have learned.

I don’t know the exact figure, but I’d estimate that at least twenty percent of education spending on this country is somehow related to math.  I always hear about how this school or that one is providing ‘double math’ blocks and, of course, the testing mania in which math has been elevated to half of an elementary school teacher’s rating and half of the school’s rating, there has been not just a lot of money spent on math, but a lot of equally valuable time.  In terms that corporate reformers can relate to, we have not gotten a large return on investment with this.  We have spent a lot of money and time on this and have very very little to show for it.

Earlier I wrote that I don’t really consider this a ‘crisis’ since I don’t agree with those who think that if students would do better on standardized math tests it would mean that they were more ready for college or ready to compete globally.  I don’t think a large percent of students have ever been truly good at math in this country or in any other one, so to elevate this to a ‘crisis’ I think is exaggerating.  But I do think it is sad when we dedicate all this money and time to a subject that is like a religion to me and that generally goes “in one ear and out the other.”  It is not a ‘crisis,’ but it is a ‘problem.’  It is a shame and a waste of money and time, and a very unnecessary one, I think.  For all we put into it, we get out of it a majority of people who ‘hate’ math and who feel that they were ‘bad’ at it.

Yeah, people like me. Rubinstein, who teaches at one of the best high schools in the US, says that if he were in charge, math after eighth grade would be taught as electives, so those kids who had a real passion for it could go on, and those who didn’t care for higher math or who weren’t good at it wouldn’t waste their time and the teachers’ time. His reform ideas strike me as highly sensible. More:

Nobody ever consulted me when designing the common core, so I never got a chance to propose my two reforms.  So instead of my ideas, we have ‘higher expectations’ with more ‘rigor’ and more ‘rigorous’ assessments.  States that have started on these assessments, like in New York, have seen proficiency rates drop from 60% on the old tests to 30% on the new common core tests.  The politicians assure us that when schools get used to the higher expectations, the scores will increase over the years.  Those politicians, however, know nothing about teaching and learning.  Higher expectations will not cause the scores to increase.  Teachers are too constrained by the number of topics they have to teach and the number of students who hate math.  So my prediction is that unless they change the tests or the cutoff scores to make it look like they were right, the percent proficient will remain around 30%.  Maybe then they will go back to the drawing board and come up with a math education reform plan similar to what I just outlined.

I had to take algebra, geometry, and trigonometry — all wasted on me. My son Matthew struggles with math — he is verbally inclined — but wants badly to be a space scientist, so he knows he has to master this stuff. I fail to see how the student, the teacher, or mathematics, are served by forcing kids to study higher math.

[H/T: Sullivan]