Adventures in Ethics and Science

I’m a little late to the party on the Richard Cohen “who needs algebra anyway?” column in the Washington Post. As others have pointed out, the column itself is fairly lame. Piling on at this point would be a little mean.

Instead of piling on, I would like to follow the admirable example set at Science, Shrimp, and Grits by trying to think a little about the root causes behind this algebra-hating, and the situation of the particular student who inspired Cohen’s column. I don’t have a complete diagnosis of the problem, but there are some questions that need to be asked here.

1. Why can’t Gabriela pass algebra? Gabriela Ocampo, the former student in the Los Angeles school system to whom Cohen’s column was addressed, had failed her school’s first semester algebra class six semesters in a row, and was in the middle of semester number seven when she dropped out of school altogether. Who or what could be to blame:
A. Bad teaching
B. Unaddressed learning disability
C. Bad placement into algebra/need for remediation
D. Overcrowded classroom (39 students to one teacher)
E. Chronic absenteeism (Gabriela skipped the math class 62 out of 93 days in one semester)
F. Lack of effective involvement from Gabriela’s parents
G. Some combination of these

Hey, don’t look at me — I don’t have the answer key!

My guess is that somewhere in Gabriela’s educational history there was a fundamental confusion about what “learning” involves. It would not surprise me at all if this confusion arose at least in part because of someone with a fundamental confusion about what “teaching” involves. (Maybe standardized tests were part of it, too.) Learning should not feel like repeatedly banging your head into a wall, but neither should it be something you can reasonably expect to happen if you are not putting effort into it (say, doing the homework and asking questions) nor even showing up. Probably, though, Gabriela didn’t skip 2/3 of the semester the first time she took algebra. Maybe she mostly showed up, pretty much tried the homework, and just couldn’t quite get it.

If so … shouldn’t the educator grading the homework have flagged the fact that there was a problem pretty early? Shouldn’t there have been some sort of intervention — either extra help, or a switch to a math class at an appropriate level for her skills so she return to algebra with the appropriate preparation, or an evaluation for learning disabilities?

Was the algebra teacher one of those teachers who thinks math “isn’t for everyone”, and who therefore can’t be bothered to teach in such a way that there’s a chance of reaching the students who aren’t already confident in their ability to do math? (Was the algebra teacher actually one of those math teachers who really wanted to teach something else and ended up having to teach math because that’s what the school needed … and who was actually himself pretty scared of math, and thus unable to explain it in any way that didn’t come right out of the teacher’s manual?)

Were there just so many kids to get through, and so little in the way of support (on the extra-help/shifting to a different course/evaluating for learning disabilities axis) that even the most conscientious teacher couldn’t have done more than recognize that Gabriela was in trouble and be sad for her?

‘Cause, people? We can’t keep calling these places “schools” if there’s not some sort of mechanism for helping the kids who are going under. Even if Gabriela was a willing accomplice in her own failure the first time through algebra — hardly ever coming to class or doing homework — there should have been a mechanism for dealing with that.

2. What’s up with the people responding to the failure of our schools with, “Aw honey, you didn’t need that knowledge anyway! And, give me a Biggie Fry with that.” ? How nice that people who made it through the educational system and had the wherewithal to find jobs they can call “careers” without any qualms (like writing columns for major newspapers) can be dismissive of certain major bits of knowledge that Gabriela should have gotten from her education. It’s not like the broken system really hurt you if the things it didn’t give you were things you didn’t need anyway — and, of course, that means the community doesn’t have to be in any special hurry to fix the broken system. Isn’t that convenient?

Of course, at the same time there will be the usual garbage spouted about how some kinds of people just seem to have an innate ability to excel at math and science. (For some reason, the people purported to have these innate abilities don’t usually have Spanish surnames or girls’ first names.) Just how things are; better to accept it than to get your panties in a twist about it.

Sure, flunking out of algebra (not to mention dropping out of high school) puts college pretty much out of reach for Gabriela. But there are still a bunch of jobs where you don’t need a college degree. (Probably this is a good thing; you’ll need to work a few of them just to make ends meet.)

3. Why do we let stuff like this happen?

  • Learning is hard work, and lots of people are happy to embrace sloth once they’re out of school.
  • Seeing how algebra (or any other “school” subject) is actually of use in everyday life requires us to pay attention and be reflective — and we’re so busy working/commuting/wrangling kids/whatever that we can’t muster the energy to pay attention to one more thing.
  • Also, continuing to believe that we never have any practical use for algebra means that algebra class continues to be a nursable grudge (and somehow we can always find energy for those).
  • Besides, the media tells us that the pointy-headed intellectuals who actually might use algebra in their lives are not to be trusted.
  • We don’t know how to fix the schools. Figuring that out might take a lot of effort, and finding out might also commit us to spending a lot of money to fix it. (If we saw a way to fix the schools and decided not to spend the money to fix them, we’d be heartless bastards, wouldn’t we?)
  • We don’t see Gabriela or kids like her as our responsibility. But they’ll be here for us to deal with, algebra or no. Is society better off with an ill-educated underclass? I suppose there’s an economic point of view from which the answer to this would be “yes” …

… but when are you ever going to use economics in real life?


  1. #1 Carel
    February 19, 2006

    You’re right. Piling on would have been mean, not to mention redundant–but you’ve added a level of depth and thoughtfulness to the discussion that has been wanting.

  2. #2 Laura
    February 19, 2006

    Snarky and intellectual at the same time. I like it. :)

    I agree with your assessment, too.

  3. #3 Anonymous
    February 19, 2006

    In listing probable causes you forgot a very common one:

    H. A deeply ingrained belief in Gabriella that she cannot learn algebra

  4. #4 Joe Shelby
    February 19, 2006

    You need to read the original LA Times article (reg required) that started it all (and was completely uncredited by Cohen).

    Former board President Jose Huizar introduced this latest round of requirements, which the board approved in a 6-1 vote last June.

    Huizar said he was motivated by personal experience: He was a marginal student growing up in Boyle Heights but excelled in high school once a counselor placed him in a demanding curriculum that propelled him to college and a law degree.

    “I think there are thousands of kids like me, but we’re losing them because we don’t give them that opportunity,” said Huizar, who left the school board after he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council last fall. “Yes, there will be dropouts. But I’m looking at the glass half full.”

    The problem was a lot deeper than just “how do they teach algebra”, it really came from an arbitrary new standard applied to all students at the high school level without the lower grades preparing their students for such a requirement. She didn’t take math seriously in the lower grades because she didn’t think it would be important (algebra wasn’t a requirement for graduation when she started high school), and suddenly it became important on an entire generation unprepared.

    The standard came from someone who only judged things on his personal experience growing up, ignoring reams of studies on how a school and/or school system should actually enact increasing standards (by starting them at the elementary school first and then raising the standards when those students reach high school)

    The skipping 62 out of 93 days was in that final 6th semester, prior to her dropping from school.

  5. #5 Sam Leven
    February 24, 2006

    Learning includes understanding [“knowledge-in-action”]. Kids USE algebra all the time — and even calculus. they use it implicitly, SOLVING PROBLEMS.
    To the extent we stop reifying “education” and encourage all of us to ASK QUESTIONS, we’ll begin to resolve school deficiencies. Put teachers in the role of aids to students’ explorations [think of what Socrates could have done with computer visualizations, libraries, and Google!].
    On economic analysis: even right wingers recognize the need to value [and enhance] “human capital” and “social capital”. Economists focus on innovation and research as fonts of productivity — and effective cooperation to limit “frictions” which prevent organizations from forming internal and external coordination which promote flexibility and efficiency.
    Even the President worries that Asian kids study and care about science far more than Americans; his Council of Economic Advisers promotes development of skills in all people.
    Sam Leven, Ph.D [political economy]

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