Regression Continues in Math Education


The year is 2015. Computers are used daily by almost everyone. Demand for programmers is as high as ever. Data is ubiquitous, but useless without human brains for interpretation. Twenty-first century educators will surely rise to meet the demand of our ever evolving, ever expanding technology.

Unfortunately, it seems that instead of education rising to meet demand, it is in fact regressing, to a state that has not been seen before. Evidenced by San Fransisco’s Refusal to offer Algebra 1 to 8th graders, educational institutions are unable to adapt to the modern world.

I’ve spent over a decade working with the educational system, mainly teaching at the college level. I taught my way through a Ph.D. I studied math and loved it (well, most of the time). I’ve seen the results of the public education system for a while. From that vantage, there doesn’t seem to be any progress.

Why is education going in reverse when compared to technology and other economic sectors? Why are children not better problem solvers sooner? Why are some students learning high school algebra in college? Why are some colleges thinking of making a remedial course to prepare students for a remedial course? Oh, and by the way, remedial is now called developmental. Not only is secondary education failing, we’re changing our language to hide this fact.

It’s simple economics. Education is not able to respond to market needs. Given that many parents will send their children to public schools of any quality, there is no incentive to improve. The result is that there are fewer resources for expanded options. The result is one size fits all education. The result is eight graders only taking what amounts to pre-algebra in San Fransisco.

Innovative curricula have been rolled out before in public schools. Some of the content of these curricula is useful, for example the “New Math” of the 1960’s. This curriculum included boolean logic and set theory. These subjects are useful today in programing and with databases. However, the roll out of these changes treated teachers like robots. Unplug a teacher from one curriculum, plug them into the new curriculum. This ignores the fact that teachers may need new skills to teach what amounts to new subjects. Such broad changes are probably best carried out on a small scale, ironing out kinks when they arise. Then the knowledge can spread organically when success is proven.

I have a concern that history may be repeating itself with the roll-out of common core. In fact, common-core contributed to the decision of San Fransisco limiting their educational flexibility. The centralized nature of these changes will make this harm difficult to undo. Failure of the students is seen as an fundamental limitation on human learning. It is not seen as an opportunity to reflect and create a better approach to education. The next generation computer chips will probably double the processing power of their predecessors. Children will have their processing power reduced by an ever so slight fraction when compared to their parents. It’s the employer of the future’s lament.

Another scary trend is reduced critical thinking. Math is being taught today in a way that minimizes critical thinking: being able to evaluate the truth or falseness of a claim based on evidence and reasoning. Mathematics courses are a golden opportunity to promote critical thinking. That opportunity is wasted by teaching students to memorize and apply formulas instead of derive them. I’ve had students that have tried to memorize an impossible amount of information. Without understanding the context, I believe the task is futile. It’s almost like years in public school had shut off the student’s ability to reason. What’s worse, teachers may lose, or never acquire, the skill of teaching full explanations with complete reasoning.

Here in New Hampshire, I’m doing what I can to improve this situation. I’ve started Dr. Tapp’s Mathematical Playgrounds. Currently I am providing arithmetic promotion to 6 through 8 year olds who are homeschooled. This fall, I’m expanding to cover Algebra and Trigonometry to an older target. This is a bridge course, intending to prepare students for mathematical proofs that require critical thinking. Who knows, maybe an eighth grader will take the class, and learn more than San Fransisco can offer.

Dr. Darren Tapp, Ph.D.
Dr. Darren Tapp, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant and Adjunct Professor.
Darren earned a Ph.D. in Algebraic Geometry from Purdue University. He has spent over a decade teaching mathematics at various colleges. Currently he is adapting his efforts towards younger audiences with a project he has named "Dr. Tapp's Mathematical Playgrounds."
  • Elaine C

    I don’t agree. Common Core teaches much more critical thinking than previous standards. See the Math Practices – especially the evaluation of others work.

    Also, living and teaching near SF, I fully agree with their decision to not teach Algebra I in 8th grade – which is NOT a dumbing down issue. Here in CA, Math 8 is actually a pretty advanced class, necessary for teaching and reinforcing the prerequisites for CC Algebra I – which actually has elements of Alg II in it. (For example, first semester Alg I now includes some exponential functions, function notation including composite functions, etc.)

    It’s a case of the names being the same, but the content being quite a bit more advanced.

    • Elaine, If common core works so well, why are they phasing out Algebra in 8th grade. I reviewed the common core 8th grade requirement, and it was at the pre-algebra level.

      • Elaine C

        I’d say because Algebra I at the 8th grade level didn’t really work either. I’ve had more students then I can count come in and have to be placed back into Alg I/Math I, after having taken it in8th grade… (And don’t even get me started on r the kids who also took geometry!)

        While the standards superficially look like they are pre-algebra, in actuality they are not. There are a number of hidden pieces that are more advanced which are wrapped in.

        Also… While the standards are ‘common’, states can modify them up to something like 15%… Are you looking at the CA version, your local version, or the baseline national standards? I know that CA focused a lot of their changes on the 8th grade level precisely because of these concerns. Prior to CCSS, it was a state law that all 8th graders must take Algebra1. Because then *of course* all the kids would be prepared and successful. (High schools actually lost points on the rating system if they had any students in Algebra1. Even if they really needed to be there.)

        I apologize for spelling/coherency issues.. I’m responding in my phone, while dealing with a sick toddler.