Most Likely to Succeed–Part II cont… (Math)

Most Likely to Succeed

Well, so far this is complicating things. I’ve read the section on “Math” and am experiencing a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance.

For instance: I’ve been dying to introduce an AP Statistics class at SkyView since I arrived here six years ago. In my very first year as the math department chair, I had the opportunity to start the class and even had the approval of the principal to give it a go. But I knew that “the numbers” just wouldn’t support the decision (not in the way we wanted). Since then, every year the math department has asked me if we can have an AP Stats class. …and every year my heart says “yes” but my head knows that we can’t do it and shouldn’t take that step just yet. As I am reviewing the numbers for next year, things haven’t changed: I know that we still can’t offer AP Stats, but I really want to offer the course, and what I just read in the text is not helping me to “do the right thing” when I really want to be able to “do the right thing” (because either way could be “the right thing”). Get it?

Probably not – but that helps to emphasize the cognitive dissonance I’m experiencing at the moment. And it helps to further elucidate the crux of the issue posed by Wagner and Dintersmith in this part of the book. Right out of the gate, they make a powerful statement – a statement that explains the passion and drive that math teachers bring to the classroom:

“Math is a body of logic that brings clarity to a complex world. Basic math proficiency permeates professional, civic, and social interaction. Math is a powerful and creative way to gain insight into real-world phenomena. The field of mathematics has changed lives, has formed the basis for transformational companies and industries (electronics, search engines, biogenomics), and is the conceptual foundation for our deepest scientific breakthroughs. And math is crucial in everyday life A lack of financial literacy can lead to heartbreaking personal distress – even for our most educated” (p. 88).

Right now, every math teacher reading this is thinking: “Absolutely! The authors are right on! Math is so powerful, and we need to teach students all of the math that we possibly can. Quick, get me a classroom full of students because I’m ready to go!” However, the authors continue…

“A recent survey found that some 80 percent of U.S. adults never use any math beyond decimals, fractions, and percentages. … And the math needed for college? While advanced math may be needed for admission to college, it is not the math required for students to succeed in college. A 2013 study by the National Center on Education and the Economy found that ‘the mathematics that most enables students to be successful in college courses is not high school mathematics, but middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions, and simple equations'” (p. 93).

And this is one of the reasons that I loved teaching our Discrete Math class. It was such a fun and powerful opportunity to get our senior students thinking about finances, statistics, economics, politics, city planning, logic, and all the other powerful applications of basic mathematics. I had the students thinking critically and creatively. Students were having Socratic discussions and doing interesting, self-selected projects. Students were balancing the Federal budget (trying to anyway), investing in stock, participating in Budget Challenge, evaluating political speeches, painting Escher-like murals, making compelling presentations, and even offering me and my wife “advice” on refinancing our mortgage.

So why isn’t more high school math like this (why isn’t more of high school, in general, like this)? Well, the authors don’t hesitate to offer an explanation:

“What stands between our current math education model and the world we just described? High stakes tests. … Because high stakes tests can’t measure creative problem-solving” (pp. 94 & 100).

And while I’m not one to say that we shouldn’t test students or hold schools accountable, I can’t deny that they have a point here. And this is where my cognitive dissonance stems from. As a school leader, should I be more concerned about applied math (statistics, financial literacy, economics, etc.) or pure math (the Quadratic Formula, integrals, trig identities, etc.)? Should I allow for students to pursue their passions and embrace creativity or ensure that they ace their SATs? What happens to my students, our school rating, or my job if we abandon the “core knowledge” that drives college admissions in order to pursue the innovation needed to succeed in our rapidly-changing economy?

This is scary to think about, much less to talk about! The mere mention of such things is considered heretical in some circles.

Fortunately, I feel that at SkyView we do a good job of finding the middle ground for our students, helping them both to prepare for college and also to think critically and creatively with the knowledge we provide. Of course, there is always room to improve, but fortunately we have an incredible high school team that embraces a growth mindset.

This year, our first graduating class (Class of 2015) will graduate from college. I’m curious how ready they are for “the real world.” No… I’m not really – I already know the answer to that question. I not only taught those students years ago, but I’ve been meeting with SkyView alumni for four years to grab a cup of coffee over Thanksgiving break or a quick bite to eat during the summer, and I know they are ready. Our graduates have what it takes to change the world. And that thought helps to alleviate my cognitive dissonance a little bit.

Still more to come. Next up: English.


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Wagner, T. and Dintersmith, T. (2015).  Most likely to succeed, preparing our kids for the innovation era.  New York: New York.