Sunday, July 02, 2006

Why should I learn math?

One of the main components that my Numeracy class is still lacking is the piece that will help motivate students to want to learn math, and to understand why improving their math skills is so critical. I'm not talking about learning math so they can find discounts at the store or give the correct tip at a restaurant - or even so that they can pass Algebra. Though these things are important too, I'm talking about math in the larger social context.

The average incoming level for our freshmen is around 5th grade. Our mission is to get them to a 4-year college. This requires not just development of their academic skills, but it also requires a shift in their thinking and self-perception. Our students come in with comparable literacy levels; however, in our society, it seems much clearer to people that being able to read and write is an essential skill. There are plenty of well-educated people who happily admit that they can't do math, but none that laugh about their inability to read a book.

In our Verbal Reasoning class (i.e. learning to read), students are exposed to works by authors who come from backgrounds similar to their own, writers who describe how they were able to overcome their obstacles and succeed in education and in life. In that class, they often discuss the direct connection between their literacy levels, their success in high school and college, and the impact that they will have on their families and communities in the future. In that class, many students begin to care about their reading levels, and they want to improve - not just for a grade, but because they have begun to internalize what it really means to be unable to read in our society. They begin to understand that learning to read is critical if they want to reach their goals.

This is what I want to happen in our 9th-10th grade Numeracy sequence, and I don't really know how to get there. Let me give an example of one activity that I've developed - this is the kind of thing I want to implement regularly. We watch the movie "Stand and Deliver" - yes it's a bit cheesy, but it's a good movie and my students (95% of whom are latino/a) relate to the students in the movie. I teach them about what AP classes are, and we talk about AP Calculus specifically. Then, I give them the data that I download each year from the AP website - the scoring data, nicely broken down by ethnicity. I have them calculate percentages of students passing and failing for each ethnicity, and we see that the percentage of whites and asians passing is always about double that for latinos and blacks. We talk about why it happens this way, and we reflect on their own experiences in math. I try to help them connect these ideas back to their own actions and behaviors in math, and their goals for the future. When this starts to happen for students, I think the rate at which they develop their math skills will increase more rapidly, because they will be more intrinsically motivated.

I want to make it clear to them that learning math skills is not important just to be good consumers, not just so that they can pass Algebra 1 and move forward, not just so that they can get accepted to college, but so that they can start to change the way our society functions. Clearly, my one little Stand and Deliver activity is not going to do that. That's why I want to develop more activities that are similar to this, and expose students more regularly to them. I want them, by the end of the year, to be eager to see how much their math scores have improved just as they are eager for their reading results.

I am going to keep working on this during the summer and into next year (and beyond, I'm sure). If anyone has ideas, activities, comments, suggestions, or questions, I would love to hear them. As I come up with things, I will post them here too, in the hopes of getting your feedback.


Anonymous said...

I agree with something that Moebius Stripper over at Tall, Dark, and Mysterious often says: You have to know some mathematics to be a functioning member of a democratic society. (Sorry for the paraphrase, MS.) Maybe as late as 10 years ago this was not the case. But information is ubiquitous now, and to make sense of it -- particularly the quantitative information that surrounds all aspects of public and private life -- people have to be able to think quantitatively. Your students will either use quantitative stuff, or the quantitative stuff will use them.

Here in higher-education land we talk a lot about "liberal learning", which refers to th sort of learning that a FREE person undertakes. I want my students to learn mathematics because I want them to have full, satisfying, enjoyable lives -- which is only possible if they are free to think for themselves, draw sound conclusions on their own, sort out real information from noise, and make wise and informed decisions based on that information. Learning to read and write is part of that -- but so is learning how to "do math" in all its forms.

So you can tell them, I guess, that they are not ever really going to be their own person until they know math. That is not only true, it plays on their ever-growing desire to be independent!

Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. I've said this before at Casting Out Nines, but it bears repeating.

I did not learn to enjoy mathmatical and quantitative thinking until well into my 20s, when I retook Algebra I & II as preparation for returning to graduate school.

The real difference though was when I got my first computer (an Osborne!)when I was in business school.

Sheer arithmetic operations were and are a mental burden. Yes, I had them down to automaticity -- but it seems like there was something intrinsically satisfying about math thinking that I was missing.

I suppose for your kids, making the argument that you can't tell if someone is bulls***ing you if you aren't numerate. Then come up with some examples.

Darren said...

Read John Allen Paulos' 1988 book Innumeracy. He has plenty of examples in there, as well as explanations you can use to explain why numeracy is so important.

Dan Wekselgreene said...

I agree with the comments above. I read the Innumeracy book a while back and really loved it - that's actually why I decided to name my class Numeracy.

I think I need to find a way to balance the personal messages (learn math so you can go to college and be successful in life, so people don't take advantage of you, so you can assess information you hear in the media, etc.) with the more political (i.e. minority students who are very underrepresented in academic, professional, and political life can change the status quo by learning these skills and moving forward). I think these messages will appeal to different students to different extents.

Darren said...

No, don't politicize a hard science. The Rethinking Schools people try to do that--it's not appropriate.

Save the social science for social science class.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, you think their failures thus far involve an active choice, and that part of your job is to "sell" them to choose otherwise.

But the most likely reason they've failed thus far is because they didn't understand it the first time. The solution, then, is not a sales job but a better teaching job than they got the first time. Why waste any instruction time on movies and marketing?

If indeed you do have kids who could do the work but choose not to, then don't belittle yourself or education with a sales job. Suburban schools don't waste their time trying to coax students into accepting the value of school work. Are you saying disadvantaged students need the sales job because they're too dumb to figure it out on their own?

Dan Wekselgreene said...


You are putting words into my mouth. For some students, I do think there was an active choice to not learn - but I don't think is true for all or even most students.

I think comparing my students to the suburban, middle class students this way ignores several important factors. Suburban students tend to have better schools, more experienced teachers, and more resources available. They are also more likely to have parents who graduated from high school and college. Suburban students have a different set of expectations that they grow up with; for many, it is not "will I go to college", but "where will I go to college".

For my students, many of them will be the first in their families to graduate from high school, let alone college. Also, many of them had quite substandard opportunities for education in their elementary and middle schools (I've visited almost all of the middle schools in San Jose as part of a previous job I had, and the differences between the downtown schools and the suburban schools is striking - from class size to academic expectations to physical facilities).

I'm not talking about a sales job - I'm talking about helping students see the value of education, and not just from the perspective of getting a better job in the future. I want them to understand what college is, what it means for them to go, and what it will take for them to get there. Our students, when they arrive, don't really believe that they can go to college - they don't see it in their families and they don't see it in their communities. When DCP first started, the data showed that only 1 in 100 latino students from the downtown San Jose area was being admitted to a 4-year college. I don't consider this marketing - I consider it an integral part of their education, and part of my job.

I think it is wrong to approach teaching all student populations the same way. In no way am I calling my students dumb (I really take offense at your remark). I am trying to help provide a framework for their education that is taken for granted in other communities - and doesn't need to be part of the formal education process. You are asking my students to "figure out" something that suburban students don't have to figure out.

Darren said...

Dan, stating that suburban schools have better teachers and a culture of going to college as a counter to your own school is a bit silly, don't you think? You teach at Downtown COLLEGE PREP. And are you saying that you're not as qualified as teachers in Los Gatos or Palo Alto?

Kids go to your school for a reason. I've read Joanne's book, and I know the good work you all are doing. Don't try to hide behind the "urban school" complaint. Yes, your students come from some of those "urban schools" but there's been a conscious choice to have students attend your school. Use *that*. I agree with Cal.

Dan Wekselgreene said...


I'm speaking in general terms: in general, students in wealthier areas tend to have better schools with more experienced teachers and more resources - is there any doubt that this is true? However, that's not to say that it must be true for any specific instance.

I'm not saying the the college-going culture is a product of the suburban schools - I'm saying it's a product of family and community experiences and values, and schools tend to reflect their communities.

Most of our families consider sending their kids to college to be important to them - but it's new, and there is little family experience to help the student know what to do. And, there are cases of students who come here and are not supported by their families (i.e. the parents may want the student to get a job instead of going to college, which causes conflict between student and parents).

Students and families come to DCP because they know the teachers here are good, and because we hold high standards, and keep students accountable to those standards, and because we now have a track record of sending students to college. For this to happen, we don't just focus on pure academics - we have a deliberate program (our "college readiness" program) that helps both teach skills (from note-taking to filling out the FAFSA to visiting colleges, along with lots of alumni support) and values (visioning, reflecting, goal-setting, etc.). This is not a voluntary program - its part of our core curriculum for all students - and it seems to be an essential component of the whole plan.

I'm not really sure what you mean by "hiding behind the urban complaint". Do you mean that we shouldn't take our students' backgrounds into account when planning our curriculum, pedagogy, and school-wide program? If so, I clearly disagree. If you mean that I am complaining about their backgrounds (and lack of learning), that is also not true - it is simply a reality that we take into account when we make our decisions. That's why we call it the Exponential Curve. I am not disappointed in the students, I am disappointed in a school system that has allowed them to get to 9th grade without an elementary math education.

Back to the earlier discussion: I am not interested in using my Numeracy class as a conduit for leftist political thought. Though I do think students should learn about sweatshops (for example), I don't think that should become the focus in math class. Math is, as you said, a hard science, which means in and of itself, it is not political. However, who gets a quality math education is political. I think it is completely relevant for students to reflect on their own experiences and determine if they are just. If a student realizes that his or her own math education has not been on par with others (for whatever the reason), I think bringing that to the front and examining it makes a lot of sense. It can help motivate students to learn more. Also, students who have been making poor choices may start to make better choices when they begin to see the bigger picture.

Also, as I initially mentioned, I don't think this is the only thing that must be done to inspire my students to want to learn math. They should also be shown how math is useful in life, how it will prepare them for college, how it will let them better understand and interact with the world around them.

Anonymous said...

I think it's not a bad idea for _anyone_ to have an idea why it is important for them to learn math--urban or otherwise. I know some of my students see it as a totally unconnected part of their lives, but having a discussion on why it is benificial (even if they only realize it later after going through the motions) is better than just saying just learn it.

Anonymous said...

I want to address the idea that we should not waste valuable time doing a "sales pitch" in Numeracy class, or in any math class. (I happen to teach a Numeracy class at Downtown College Prep, just so you know what my biases are.)

The desire to do well in school, to go to college, to learn math or anything else, is a learned behavior. People assume all the time that all of our students enter the 9th grade wanting to go to college, so it's easy to help them get there. Not so. Many of our students don't know what college is, or what professions are open to them, or why they should care about academics.

Most of our freshman program (and the rest of our program as well, to a lesser degree) focuses on getting students to buy into the idea that they should achieve academically and go to college. But this is a long and painstakingly incremental process for most students. It happens through repeated interactions between teachers and students, field trips, vision assignments, calls to parents. It happens because every day we walk into the classroom and expect (or at least pretend to expect) that every student will work hard and succeed, even those who have shown no sign of being ready to be students before. We talk and talk until we're blue in the face about college, and we have our alumni come back and speak, and call people up at assembly for getting on the college track, and bring in panels of college students and graduates.

We surround the kids with the idea that they are going to college, and yet many of them don't really start to believe it until the end of their junior years when we take them to visit colleges around California and they start to think, wait, I could see myself here. It becomes real.

I like to say that we're beating them over the head with the idea that they want to achieve and go to college, until they finally decide it's a good idea. Of course, we're affectionately beating them...with a nerf bat or something. Ok I'm a dork.

But the point is this: not all students understand why they should achieve. And not all students understand that they are capable of achieving. And not all students have been given the opportunity to achieve. DCP is a school specifically for those kinds of students. So we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't do everything possible to convince them that achieving in math is important. We promise their parents that they will go to college; how can they go to college if they don't even know why they want it?

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that yes, it's important to motivate students to learn math, and it's important that they understand the larger political forces that brought us to this point. In order to overcome the enormous hurdles our students face, they need the motivation of understanding how the educational system got this way and what they can do to change it.

Anonymous said...

"The desire to do well in school, to go to college, to learn math or anything else, is a learned behavior. "

Have you ever taught well-heeled suburban kids? If you had, you wouldn't think that they had a "desire" to go to college, learn math etc.

They go to school because that's what their parents tell them to do, and because they have no choice.

Your students, apparently, have a choice. They can work hard and get decent grades, or they can fail, which is an option denied their more well-off counterparts.

One would think that any kid could figure this out for themselves, but DCP wastes a great deal of time on an advertising campaign in the fear that they won't. And then Dan gets mad because I ask him if he thinks the kids are dumb.

In fact, I think the time-wasting propaganda generates from the fact that well-meaning teachers who work with underprivileged kids by choice, rather than necessity, are driven by the dream that they will influence the kids far beyond the pedestrian instructions of fractions and quadratic equations.

The kids will either succeed or not based on their native abilities and your capacity as an instructor. There's no basis to assume they need a sales job, and far less reason to think that their more successful counterparts in suburbia have internalized the marketing campaign you think so necessary.

Anonymous said...

Do you live near San Jose, CA? If so, I would like to invite you to come spend some time in our classrooms and speaking with our students.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, most people who read my deeply skeptical comments on education blogs are convinced I should be kept away from students at all costs. So I'm wondering if this is sarcasm and I'm missing it.

In any event, yes, I normally live very near San Jose, but I'm spending the summer in North Carolina fixing up a house. I'll be back in the late August.

Dan Wekselgreene said...


It's true that I have not taught in a suburban school, or to middle-class kids. That was the experience I grew up in, and there was never any question (in my mind, in my parents', or in the school's) as to whether I was going to go to college, and for everyone I knew, it was the same. (It may be that my views on suburban schooling are overly influenced by my own experience, and I am incorrectly generalizing.)

Expectation is a powerful thing. It was not there for many of our students in their elementary and middle grades experience, and, for some of them, it is not there at home. We have seen that providing that expectation explicitly has been the key to success for our students.

"The kids will either succeed or not based on their native abilities and your capacity as an instructor. "

Well, it seems we just have to disagree, then. I've seen countless examples of students with low "native ability" who have struggled, failed, and finally overcome their academic barriers through endless hard work. I have also had students with a great deal of "native" mathematical ability who failed due to their lack of student skills, or lack of buy-in. (The latter are the students I am trying to reach as described in my original post.)

Everything in my experience tells me that, for the kind of students that I work with, they need scaffolding not just of the academic material, but of the surrounding behaviors and motivations that go with it. Many of our students do not, as you say, "figure it out for themselves", and I don't think it is realistic to expect them to do so without help. This sounds to me like the "discovery learning" that you are opposed to. I don't expect students to figure out fractions with no guidance, so why expect that they can learn student behaviors and motivation that way? I don't consider students to be dumb if they don't figure out fractions on their own, and I don't consider them to be dumb if they can't figure out the non-academic pieces on their own.

I respect your opinion and I appreciate you taking the time to write. I'm interested in knowing if you are talking purely from your own teaching experience, or if you know of external research to support your ideas. My opinions are based primarily on the experiences I've had working with these students - in order to change my mind, I would really need to see some studies (reflecting this specific population) that show students learn better when pure academics are the only thing focused on in the classroom (i.e. not teaching proper student behaviors, motivations, goal-setting, etc.)

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not a teacher of any sort, but it seems to me that a lot of people don't realize how many opportunities there are to use math in their daily lives because they can't actually do it.

I'll give you an example. My wife wanted me to build her a headboard for our bed. All I had to do was cut it out of particle board, she was going to pad it and upholster it. Her only requirement was that it be of a certain height and that it have a little curve on the top, so that the middle was five inches higher than the edges.

So, what was the radius of the circle that would give me that much loft for an arc as wide as our bed? Since I knew a little math and knew the names of things, like "arc" and "chord" and so on, it was pretty easy to google up the formula and apply a little trig and figure it out — about fifteen minutes' worth of work (then we went out in driveway and used a string and a pencil to trace the arc).

Little things like this come up all of the time. If you know enough math, you can save yourself a lot of time and trial and error. Of course, keeping your wife happy is worth a lot too...

On the "good citizen" side of things, understanding some math can often help debunk the crap you are fed in the news. For example, if E85 gasoline (the kind that is 15% ethanol) is only $2.59 a gallon when regular gas is $2.89 a gallon, it's a real deal, isn't it? Well, no. When you figure that you only get about 80% as many miles per gallon with E85, it's actually a worse deal at $2.59 than regular gasoline.

How many people, however, have the capacity to do the (rather simple) mental arithmetic while watching the news and realize that the TV station is just giving them an E85 pep-talk? Damned few and it's a shame.

And take gas prices as a whole. Say you drive 10,000 miles per year and get 25 miles per gallon in your car. That means that, over a whole year, you use only about 400 gallons of gas. That means that a full one dollar increase in the price of gas works out to about $1.10 per day - less than you likely spend on coffee, cheaper than a liter of bottled water. Where's your "crisis" now?

I would say that it's rare for a day to go by without at least one chance to use math to make my life better in some way, even if it's something that no one but a nut like me would be able to appreciate.

If I were teaching math, I would try (with the help of many internet friends, perhaps) to gather enough of these little tips that I could present the class with a new example of using math in everyday life each and every class day for the whole school year.

Perhaps someone should write a book, "Math in our Daily Lives" or something like that...

Anonymous said...

I think that Rob is on the right track: the way to understand the importance of understanding how numbers work is in realizing what you cannot understand if you do not know how to do the math.
In addition to the examples he suggests, how about analyzing the chances of winning the state lottery? Compare the expected outcome of saving $5 per week and spending that $5 on lottery tickets of various types.
Look at results of medical research: how much are your chances of having a stroke increased if you use steroids? a heart-attack from using cholesterol lowering drugs? What’s the difference between a 2% increase and “twice as likely” if the base-level is a 1 in 5000 chance? What’s the difference between a false positive and a false negative test result: how many false positives are reasonable to avoid having false negatives?
How about taxes: which will cost you more: a .25% increase in sales tax or a 3% increase in income tax? and how does that answer change if your taxable income is $12000 or $120000? One of the candidates for the state legislature in my state suggested that every woe could be cured by eliminating the state income tax: there are people in the state who cannot afford health care, housing, higher education, or food. If we simply eliminate the state income tax, every family will save (on average) $5000 which will make them able to afford all these things. Analyze the numeracy of that one!
I work with people who know math and people who don’t. In general, the people who know math are better at understanding processes: what order do things have to happen in, what things can happen at the same time, what things will hold others up. If you think that you will ever work on complex projects, understanding algebra will help (and I do not mean simply being able to solve complicated equations, but rather really understanding why steps are done in a particular order and which steps can be done in more than one way). In the real world, it is important to understand the difference between problems that have a right answer and those that may have several good answers. Knowing that there is usually more than one correct way to get an answer leads to flexibility in life (8 x 7 = 56 which I seem to be incapable of remembering, so I can use a calculator or I can calculate 2 x (4 x 7) OR 3 x 8 + 4 x 8 OR 8 x 10 - 8 x 3 in my head.
Clearly, if you want to teach why an educated person needs to be numerate, you cannot leave social sciences out of the math classroom. But the students who are going to learn math for the sheer joy of calculating the correct answer probably are not in your classroom.


Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. As I read Cal's comments (and glance at his entries at the group blog he linked to)-- I'm seeing that Cal assumes that what DCP kids do not have any barriers to achievement other than their own effort, or lack of it. That is a argument from naivete.

It takes a great deal for a family to commit to a program like DCP (or Prep for Prep, or A Better Chance, or Eastside College Prep, or a host of other programs that support first-generation college goers.

It is also important to remember that your kids in the Numeracy class are 13 to 14 years old -- not an age range where they have really mastered future-oriented, higher-order thinking, even with kids who have all the academic advantages.

Turning from that issue, I wonder if DCP has contacts with ethnic professional and student organizations. The idea here is to bring representatives from the organizations to talk to your students about how math is intrinsically interesting and/or is part of the fabric of a rewarding field of study.

Or just the object lesson for the kids of seeing that people like them-- ethnically and socio-economically -- can do math and enjoy careers and fields of study that are math-intensive.

Here are some contacts that are local to the San Jose area:

Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers
Our Office Address
645 Wool Creek Drive
San Jose, CA 95112


The mission of SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) is to encourage Chicano/Latino and Native American students to pursue graduate education and obtain the advanced degrees necessary for science research, leadership, and teaching careers at all levels.

I don't think you have that many Native Americans at DCP, but at San Jose State there's

American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES)
Contact Person: Aracelis Velasquez-Rivera
Phone: (408) 956-1696
Box: 49

AISES, a chapter of the national organization provides Ameircan Indians and Alaska Natives a vehicle to pursue studies in science, engineering and all other academic majors by bridging science and technology with traditional Native values and providing opportunities to educational programs and business companies.

Also at San Jose State:

Black Alliance of Scientists and Engineers

Contact Person: Zack Williams
Phone: (510) 919-9881
Box: 118

To increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers and scientists who excel academically, succeed professionally, and make an
impact in the community.

Also at San Jose State

Hispanic Nursing Student Association
Contact Person: Christina Saucedo
Phone: (408) 278-1942
Box: 156

To support and mentor Hispanic Nursing Students and to promote the health of the Hispanic Community.

Also at San Jose State
Latino Business Student Association (formally Association of Latino Professionals in Finance & Accounting, LBSA)
Contact Person: Hector de Santiago
Phone: (408) 504-6492
Box: 59

LBSA San Jose State University Chapter is a student-run organization established to assist Latino business students on their road to professional success.

Also at San Jose State
Society of Latino Engineers and Scientists
Contact Person: Jose Zarate
Phone: (805) 878-3299
Box: 70

To arouse an academic involvement, create community outreach programs, and form academic support groups.

Anyway, that's a start.

Dan Wekselgreene said...

Thanks to all for the suggestions so far. Liz, thanks for all the links and info - I think that bringing in outside speakers could be very effective. Especially if I can find people willing to teach a lesson relating to their field (though that might be a bit of a stretch to expect this!).

I'll start contacting people this summer to see who is willing to come in, and what they might talk about or do in the classroom.

If anyone knows of other groups that do or might provide outreach, the info would be much appreciated.

As to your point about 13-14 year olds not having mastered future oriented thinking, well, I couldn't agree more. I think that many of them at that age are operating very much on a personal, immediate level, and they are very attuned to what is "fair", both in and out of the classroom. Often, a student who (seemingly) pays attention to nothing else will perk right up and speak out when the teacher (inevitably) does something in class that seems unfair (because that student, no matter how cool he/she wants to be, is really constantly watching what everyone else is doing!). Anyway, that's why I think exposing students to social issues that will seem "unfair" to them might be effective motivation. As teachers, it is our constant job to help students see the link between their immediate actions and long-term results. (Sometimes, "long-term" can mean "the end of the week"!)

Anonymous said...

Liz, I have no blog entries on the front page right now, so I'd be interested to know how you could get a sense of my views. My guess is that you've erroneously pegged me as C.G. Heckler. You are assuming I'm a guy with no other basis than the fact that I post as "Cal". which doesn't have the same inerrant gender signalling as "Richard" or "James".

So if you can't be bothered to verify facts on such niggling details as gender, don't you think it's a tad stupid to think you can make any leaps about my political ideology (as you perceive it) and its link to my educational philosophy? Far better to restrict yourself to what you know about my position, which I've been posting on the thread.

However, your leaps represent exactly the flaws in your and Dan's thinking. If I think a is true, then I'm sure b must follow. If b, then c is unquestionably true. Then you start arguing d based on c, without ever bothering to find out whether a is really true, whether b is the only option that can follow, and whethr or not c is beyond question.

Hence my posts to Dan, whose question about *how* to sell the usefulness of math assumes without question that such sales jobs are needed and essential to educational progress. He has no data to support his assumptions, and indeed says that he formed his opinions only on his own experience.

In contrast, my only assertions are that the most likely reason a student flunked is that he didn't understand it, and that native ability (which includes personal character, of course) and teacher knowledge are the most likely reasons for success or failure.

I don't think a cite is needed for those assertions, but I will give a counter cite for the benefits of the sales job: "No Excuses", by the Thernstroms. I'm not by any means a fan, and I don't agree with their conclusions, but they closely examine many charter schools that use an authoritarian approach: discipline, discipline, discipline. Mantras everywhere reminding kids of their duties. No extracurriculars. Long hours. No sweet-talking or persuading kids, no seeking to get their buy-in on the value of knowledge--they do it or leave.

Results: excellent (with the caveat that these are middle school kids, and not much data shows whether the gains hold up in high school).

If authoritarianism has demonstrated results, then the most DCP can argue is that softsell works as well--which is a long way from asserting that it's necessary.

Besides, any number of first generation students do well without the sales jobs: first generation whites and Asians, for example.

To summarize:

1) You have no solid basis to assume that a sales job is needed.

2) Any such campaign wastes education time, and there's plenty of evidence that your students need more educational time.

3) Well-off students are expected to go to school and lump it, so why give poor students the impression that their buy-in is needed?

Darren said...

This I've never understood. Why do kids need to see people with their same skin color in positions of responsibility or success in order to think that responsibility or success is something to be sought after?

It's the same with ethnic history classes in K-12. Kids need to be taught that *they* as individuals can accomplish something, not that someone with similar skin color has accomplished something.

I would ask you to read my post about Ethnomathematics at
which brings up points similar to what I put in that last paragraph above.

Lsquared said...

A story, not an argument:

I now live a life of relative suburban ease in a small midwestern, 90% caucasian, college town. When I was a grad student, though, I lived in a diverse southern California city. My son went to a magnet school in that city, and it was such a fabulous experience that I have never been completely satisfied since...

This was an elementary school, near downtown. It was 80% or more latino/a. They had a 50% turnover in the student body every year. They also had the most amazing principal (and supportive staff) I have ever seen. They held parent nights often, and always bilingually (same parents, same room, translator). I saw latina parents (mostly moms) chatting at the outside lunch tables with teachers before and after school. They held monthly award ceremonies (mostly academics). They didn't have separate art or music phy ed teachers, but they did have a goal that every child would be reading by the end of Kindergarten. They put time into reading, writing, math science--the 4th graders read and put on a shortened version of Macbeth for their class play. These people were amazing. They had the students and the parents on board that they were going to learn and succeed.

The amount of effort it takes to get everyone on board and committed to learning is phenominal, but it makes for an amazing learning experience. If you can find ways to do that in your class and your school it can pay off, and everyone will benefit.

Dan Wekselgreene said...

In contrast, my only assertions are that the most likely reason a student flunked is that he didn't understand it, and that native ability (which includes personal character, of course) and teacher knowledge are the most likely reasons for success or failure.

I don't think a cite is needed for those assertions

This is the exact kind of reasoning that you are condemning directly above. You are making assertions that have no apparent basis except your own opinion, and then base your arguments on those assertions. The presence of strong teacher knowledge and native student ability are clearly important, but I argue that they are not sufficient to guarantee that the student will pass.

Why is a citation not needed?

Darren said...

Rookie blogger and you already have a post with 24 comments.


Anonymous said...

You may want to show "October Sky" or watch it yourself if you haven't seen it yet. Full disclosure: I'm a space geek by trade and a friend-of-a-friend has one of the speaking roles in the movie.

Anonymous said...

I am a new math teacher in Southern California (going on 2nd year). I agree with parts of both sides of this argument. Maybe I can shed a different light on the topic.

I teach at a lower-middle class high school with 58% hispanic, 40% white, 2% other. We have horrible test scores mainly due to the hispanic student scores. On average there is a 200 pt gap on the api scores of hispanic vs. white students. Instead of accepting this horrible statistic, I think why?

I agree with Cal that student native ability and teacher knowledge are the most likely reasons for success and failure. A good teacher will explain math in a way that does not make it seem so foreign to those that do not have an innate ability. However, that cannot be enough because many great teachers still have students that learn due to their great pedagogical skills, but fail nonetheless. This is because passing requires drive and incentive to do the actual work.

This leads me to Cal's comment that "Well-off students are required to lump it." I think this is just as important for success as the student and teacher's ability. Most high school students would not choose to do homework or learn math concepts over playing video games or watching TV if given a choice with no consequences. The only reason we do any hardwork at all is to avoid the consequences(i.e. Going bankrupt). The difference between lower-income students and middle is this idea to "lump it" because that's just what you have to do to be successful. An upper or middle class student knows that they have to go to college to be successful. It is preached to them by their families and communities their entire life. Whereas many lower income families do not hook college as the gateway for success. To them "lumping it" to get into a school that you have to pay for (college)is a waste when all you have to do is "lump it" in a job after high school and work your way up. And many of these jobs do not require even a high school diploma. So if that is all you have to do to be successful (hard work in a job after high school) then why work to learn silly math problems?

This is where Dan's ideas come in. As educators, if we truly care about all of our students going to college we have to fill that culture gap. We have to stress the importance of college, how to get in, and make a higher education seem plausible for these children that do not even understand that world. This is where "sales" comes in. Sure we could avoid selling the idea of going to college to be successful, but all of our excellent teaching will go down the toilet. These students would continue to fail because their culture allows and accepts it.

Why do hardwork when you don't have to? Success is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe to some of these students succes is having a big family, even though you work 7 days a week as a construction worker. Whites, hispanics, blacks, asians, we all come from a different cultures with different values and ideas of what success is.

This brings me to comment on what Darren said "Why do kids need to see people with their same skin color in positions of responsibility or success in order to think that responsibility or success is something to be sought after?"

We have to fix society. These children think they have to be and act as their color and culture dictates. When all you see is poverty, that's all you know as reality. These kids need to see someone like them doing things outside their reality to belive it is possible.

I'm not saying this is right or even sensible. To me it shows poorly on their culture/family's values, but I think what Dan is doing helps these kids move towards success and hopefully change in their culture's values towards success.