A round-up of alarming articles about U.S. math education

I’ve been meaning to write a post on these four articles, recently shared by Ling Huang on a math education email list I’m part of.

In his very powerful piece The Two-Front War on Academic Standards, Maxwell Meyer opens with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” (a story I last read about a century before its setting):

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Our version of the 21st century is more (or is it less?) black and white. In There Is No Such Thing as “White” Math, Princeton Professor Sergiu Klainerman writes:

The idea that focusing on getting the “right answer” is now considered among some self-described progressives a form of bias or racism is offensive and extraordinarily dangerous. The entire study of mathematics is based on clearly formulated definitions and statements of fact. If this were not so, bridges would collapse, planes would fall from the sky, and bank transactions would be impossible.

Few people want to address the real problem, even though it is staring us in the face. As Percy Deift, Svetlana Jitomirskaya, and Sergiu Klainerman write regarding racial equity in mathematics in America Is Flunking Math:

This lack of representation is real and very serious, but the report, while raising awareness of several ugly facts from the long-ago past, makes little effort to address the real reasons for this, mainly the catastrophic failure of the K-12 mathematical educational system.

(Bold-face mine).

A second article by Deift, Jitomirskaya, and Klainerman, As US Schools Prioritize Diversity Over Merit, China Is Becoming the World’s STEM Leader, has me wondering about the Darwinian struggle between political systems:

Chinese universities are now actively attracting senior Chinese, US, and European scientists to their faculty. (And unlike their American institutional counterparts, they recruit on the merit principle, unhampered by ideologically dictated diversity mandates.) In some cases, we are seeing prominent mathematicians at good or even top US schools moving to Peking and Tsinghua Universities after long and successful US careers. Many of these scholars are Chinese, but some are not.

Will merit-based autocracies ultimately win out over equity obsessed democracies?

Of course, true equity is pretty much the opposite of what’s long been going on throughout U.S. K-12.

Cold calling via Stick Pick

Cold calling is central to my nearly 3-hour long freshman composition class, and the Stick Pick app is central to my cold calling.

Stick pick imitates popsicles being pulled out of a can, complete with sound effects. My students always get a kick out of it. The algorithm ensures everyone is called on the same number of times, and I think they like that, too. No favorites, and no possibility of favorites, even.

True story: several years ago, I had a student I found frightening. He was well over 6 feet tall, and he used to glare at me for pretty much the entire 3 hours of class. It was impossible to tell whether he was angry at me in particular or at the world in general.

Stick Pick didn’t care.

My “scary” student had as many opportunities to speak as anyone else in the class, and his answers were generally sound. I did watch to see whether he needed to be questioned less than other students. I never use cold calling as a gotcha. It’s a means of distributing participation and keeping everyone awake, and that’s all.

That experience had a surprise ending.

That December, I had private conferences with each student to discuss the exit exam, which was to be graded anonymously by the department, not by me. When I met with my angry student–this was a bit unnerving since we were in a modular completely isolated from the rest of the campus–I told him three things he needed to do to pass the exam.

He listened without glaring, but also without making eye contact. When I stopped talking, he gave me a soft, shy smile and said he would do all three. And he did. He passed.

That smile!

Was he severely shy? Shy, not angry?

I’ll never know, but I still remember his smile.

Impact of Cold-Calling on Student Voluntary Participation

The Reason I Jump: self promotion trumps intellectual honesty, Part II

Novelist David Mitchell feels he’s figured out autism. It is not a socio-cognitive disorder, but a communication disorder. This communication disorder, he says, “locks you in, it makes it very very hard to express yourself in any way.”

What has inspired Mitchell’s revelation about autism is a single book of questionable authenticity: Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump. Originally written in Japanese, purportedly by a non-speaking autistic boy using a letterboard, the book was later translated into English by Mitchell and his wife. Most recently, it has morphed into the movie The Reason I Jump which features five other individuals with autism, two of whom use letterboards. See here and here for discussion.

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Anti-racism and the comma splice

Should composition instructors teach Standard Written English to students of color?

Apparently, there is a faction within the field of Rhetorical Studies that holds we should not. Standard Written English is a white language, the thinking seems to go (I have this secondhand) and should not be imposed upon POCs. People of color have their own language, which we instructors should respect and embrace. 

I dissent.

I dissent for the simple reason that I teach writing, not talking, and black and Hispanic students don’t have their own written language. White students don’t, either. Nobody does.

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When a colon replaces a period

Great teaching example I’ll use this fall, from George Gopen’s Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective:

The film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your TV.

versus

The film has been modified from its original version: It has been formatted to fit your TV.

(Gopen capitalizes the independent clause after a colon. I don’t, so I would write this without the second capital.)

In the first version, a number of modifications could have been made: change in length, removal of bad words, elimination of explicit sex scenes.

In the 2nd version, just one change has been made, and we know what it is. The film has been formatted to fit our TV. The end.

Gopen says the colon in such sentences functions as an equals sign, and I like that way of thinking about it, though colon-as-equals-sign is too abstract to help students decide when to use one, obviously.

But as an analogy, it’s interesting and fun.

Why do some autism experts fall for Facilitated Communication?

Watching autism neurologist Margaret Bauman being taken in by Sue Rubin’s facilitated communication in Autism is a World got me thinking about other neurologists who have suffered similar fates. One in particular has long stood out to me: Mike Merzernich. After studying Tito, son of Soma, founder of the Rapid Prompting Method variant of FC, Merzenich has concluded that “Tito is for real,” and “I think there could be thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Titos out there.”

How can people who should know better about the neurology of autism have been so deluded? Doesn’t their own brain research conflict with the underlying assumptions of FC—namely, the assumption that autism is primarily a movement disorder?

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Clever Stella (the Dog of Ms. Hunger)

Since its release early this month, How Stella Learned to Talk has already garnered more 5-star reviews than another book released last month by the same publisher (William Morrow). That other book would be the pro-FC I Have Been Buried Under Years of Dust. Just a few weeks out, Stella has already broken 1000 in its Amazon sales rankings, a milestone that Dust hasn’t come close to.

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Diagnostic Grammar Test

SentenceWeaver’s Diagnostic Grammar Test is ready for beta-testing. The text-input version is here:

http://autism-language-therapies.com/DiagnosticTest/test_login.html

And the speech-input version, which runs only in Chrome and requires you to enable your microphone, is here:

https://autism-language-therapies.com/ORAL_DiagnosticTest/test_login.html

The point of the test is to detect difficulties in those areas of grammar that come naturally to most native English speakers but can pose challenges to individuals with autism and to non-native English speakers.

Still, it’s possible for native speakers to take this test and make mistakes: as you’ll see if you try it out, all it takes is a lapse in concentration!

Unlike SentenceWeaver’s teaching tool, the diagnostic tool doesn’t give you corrective feedback. However, since it needs to elicit particular words, phrases, or structures in order to assess particular grammar and syntax skills, it will sometimes ask you to reword your answer.

You’re welcome to try it out on yourself on your kids, and you can sign in using whatever name you’d like. Feedback appreciated!

How to end a sentence

A sentence from John Brennan on the subject of UFOs:

I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.

How UFO sightings went from joke to national security worry in Washington

I think I’ll use this when we discuss hedging in class next fall.

Sex and the semicolon

George Gopen on his introduction to the semicolon:

To be completely straightforward with you, for a very long time I harbored a suspicion that the semi-colon had something to do with sex. I remember the day – I was 12 years old at the time – when my English teacher reached the section of our textbook that dealt with the semi-colon. With a noticeable amount of emotional discomfort, he told our all-male class, “We won’t go into the semi-colon. You don’t need that now. You’ll need that later.” He was relieved not to have to tell us; we were relieved not to have to face the unveiling of the mystery. We were feeling that way about a number of concerns at that particular stage of life and had seen our fathers undergo the same discomfort and the same escape by avoidance.

My teacher was right, of course. I didn’t need the semi-colon at age 12. Unfortunately, by the time I was grown up enough to need the semi-colon, there was no one around to explain it to time. By then, I was somehow supposed to know all about it. I went around for years thinking I was one of the few people who did not understood (sic) this mystery. I now know that most people are just as insecure about it as I was.

The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective by George D. Gopen, p 161