Friday, September 11, 2015

September 11, 2015--Friday at the Bristol Diner: Algebra

"Why did we have to spend three years studying the Revolution?" Rona seemed agitated by her own question.

John quipped, "Maybe because it took that long to win the war."

"Actually it took longer," I murmured, "But that still is a good question though I'm sure it didn't literally take three years. You didn't like history in high school and it probably felt like three years."

"They spent at least six months telling us about what kind of clothes people wore at that time. Mainly the women."

"Probably under political-correctness pressure they needed to find something to say about the roles women played. They were likely trying to get the girls in class interested. The boys probably got into the battles and weapons."

"I'm sure they did," Rona grumbled.

"But while we're at it," she continued, "why did they require so much history--American History, World History, Non-Western History?"

"Or for that matter," John joined in, "so much literature--American Lit, English Lit, and . . ."

"And," I added, "don't forget Non-Western Literature."

"Then there was all that science and a foreign language," Rona said, "And I went to a non-traditional high school."

"State requirements. I'm sure that's the answer."

"I'm sure you're right, John, and in addition," Rona said, "Once something gets into the curriculum as a requirement it's hard to dislodge it, assuming anyone wants to. There's a whole infrastructure and industry that surrounds all the academic fields. There are jobs at stake. If they stopped requiring foreign language, what would they do with all the French and Spanish teachers?"

"Make them teach gym," I said. "I mean it. In my high school, they had a surplus of social studies teachers and since they couldn't get rid of them turned them into gym teachers. I'm sure you can imagine how well that worked out."

John was nodding, "True for me as well."

"While we're on the subject, tell me why they require everyone to take at least a year of algebra? I mean, you John are an accountant and own a manufacturing company that makes precision steel products. Do you ever use any algebra in doing people's taxes or in your manufacturing work?"

"Never once," he said. "My memory is half shot but I can't remember one thing, not one thing I learned in algebra. Maybe that equations have to be balanced. But how to do that and why that's important I think escaped me then (if I could only remember) and now--forget about now."

"When I was at the Ford Foundation," I said, "I attended a board meeting of a big deal education foundation. In Cincinnati. The meeting was devoted to how to more effectively teach inner-city kids science and math. There were a lot of good ideas around that table from very high-powered people, including Dick Riley, who was Secretary of Education.

"About a half hour into it, I said, 'I know this is going to sound crazy, but before we talk about how to teach, say, algebra more effectively, maybe we should ask ourselves why we require it of everyone in the first place.'

"All there stared at the table top. I thought, 'Boy, did I blow it. They probably think I am crazy.'"

"So what happened?" John asked.

"No one had a good answer. The dean of the school of ed there said it's partly for exposure. To see which kids gravitate toward math, maybe even have a talent for it."

"'Good point,' the school superintendent said, 'but you know, you really don't have to spend a year frustrating 99 percent of the kids to maybe find one turned on to math. In fact, anyone with math aptitude by the time he or she gets to high school would already know algebra and even calculus. Those kids teach themselves.'"

"So where did things wind up?" John asked.

"Not resolved. No surprise there. It was just too hot a topic, too potentially disruptive even though later that night, after everyone had had a few drinks, pretty much all the board members said we as a nation, as educators should probably talk openly about this because we're turning more kids off than on by requiring so much math and probably other stuff as well."

"Like three years about the Revolution," Rona said under her breath.

"What about civic education?" John added. "Since schooling is a required public enterprise, on which we spend many, many billions, isn't one big justification the preparation of well informed citizens who, because of Civics and American History, can participate more knowledgeably as voters and maybe even as public officials?'

"Excellent point," I said, "That is if it works."

"Works?" Rona exclaimed, "And where does it lead? To Donald TRUMP."

"I'm getting depressed," John said. "Did anyone see Stephen Colbert last night?"

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