img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Monday, July 9, 2007

Cross-Purposes and Collegiate Complaints

As I struggle to find where exactly on the political scale of math education I reside, I have to constantly question many things that I once took for granted. One of those things relates to the transition from secondary to post-secondary education. One of the latest tactics that the traditionalists are employing against the reform math programs involves pressure from college professors and deans. They insist that these new programs are not preparing students adequately for the collegiate curriculum. The latest article comes out of Pennsylvania, where a new integrated math program in the public schools is forcing many colleges to adapt their methods.

The first step of problem-solving is to actually determine if a problem exists. In this situation, Pennsylvanians have to determine what they feel the primary purposes of education are, and then see how high college preparation is on the list. Conveniently, their state code lists a Purpose of Education section, and nowhere in it is college even mentioned. It does say that
Public education prepares students for adult life by attending to their intellectual and developmental needs and challenging them to achieve at their highest level possible. In conjunction with families and other community institutions, public education prepares students to become self-directed, life-long learners and responsible, involved citizens.

It wasn't that long ago when most students did not go on to college. University was for the rich white men and everyone else either got a job or got a husband. Fortunately, those days are gone. There is much more equality of opportunity in education and everywhere else. But the rise in post-secondary enrollment creates new issues and debates. Here we see colleges parroting similar complaints of the business community, that essentially the public schools are not operating with their particular agendas in mind. Frankly, I don't see a problem here.

Education is important. That much is clear. It is difficult to get ahead without obtaining new knowledge and skills. Learning is necessary to grow and adapt with a system. But I believe that burden falls largely on the individual. It is each person's choice whether or not to educate themselves. No teacher can teach a student that refuses to learn, and many great men and women have been self-taught. Although there is no "right to an education" in our federal constitution, the Framers certainly realized that an informed citizenry is a prerequisite of democracy. They supported and encouraged each state to develop public education guidelines, so that every child wanting to learn had an opportunity to do so. Not everyone took advantage of the programs, but enough did to make it worth the expense. And there is quite a bit of expense. We spend as much on education in the US as we do on defense, believe it or not. Unfortunately, the complicated administrative bureaucracies swallow most of that funding before it can trickle down to the actual classrooms. Now we are stuck with a system that is hugely inefficient, stupendously expensive, and perpetually maligned.

I firmly believe that we are trying to do way too much. There are so many goals that we aren't really reaching any of them. Let's put aside cultural integration, job training, and even college prep until we can get the simpler goal of
"self-directed, life-long learners and responsible, involved citizens." To that end, I think that the two goals of any curriculum, mathematical or otherwise, need 1) teaching students how to teach themselves, and 2)providing them with skills required to be a good citizen. That may very well mean something other than what is considered a "traditional" math curriculum. For example, when in the voting booth or in the jury box, what field must you better understand, statistics or calculus? Yet stat is usually taught as an afterthought in most Algebra II classes.

Colleges can complain all they want. There objections/recommendations are duly noted. But there mission statements are fundamentally different than those of public education, and vice versa. Even now when most students will go on to some form of post-secondary program, the focus of K-12 must remain on civic responsibility rather than collegiate complaints.

No comments: