Another Annoying Opening (and Middle, and Ending) from the Times

The latest entry in the “Making Life Harder for Math Teachers” category is last Sunday’s editorial from the New York Times, entitled “Who Says Math Has to be Boring?”  Not content with an insulting first line, the editorial board had to go with an insulting title.  The obvious response is “Who Says Math Is Boring, besides innumerate journalists?”

As for the rest of the editorial:

  • Dan Meyer quickly destroys the idea that “real world problems” are automatically interesting to students.
  • Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of grading first-year seminar papers, but statements such as “most schools continue to teach math and science in an off-putting way” are unconvincing without data.  How many is “most,” and how do you define “off-putting”?  Are schools the only ones doing the putting off, or should we consider the broader culture, including, say, newspapers?
  • Is calculus necessarily the best math destination for high school students?  A strong argument could be made for statistics instead.  After all, some of these people could end up working for the New York Times, and Nate Silver isn’t there anymore.
  • I appreciate the support for the Common Core mathematics standards, but to regard quadratic equations and logarithms as part of a “high-level math track” conflicts with the goal of connecting students with real-world mathematics and science.  A search on the Times website for “Richter Scale” returns about 3,270 results, for just one example. For another, I can’t resist quoting the correction the Times posted to the editorial in question the day after it was published:

    An earlier version of this editorial referred imprecisely to a unit of measurement in a math problem. It is per square yard, not per yard.

    According to my dictionary, the word “quadratic” is from the French quadratique or modern Latin quadraticus, from quadratus, ‘made square.’

  • Finally, am I cynical to be skeptical about the roles of IBM, Boeing, and “software companies” in all of this?  To say that we want students to be ready for the work world is not the same as saying our schools should be providing job training for specific industries.  “The STEM Crisis:  Reality or Myth?” is worth a read in this regard, including this:

    “Most of the claims of such broad-based shortages in the U.S. STEM work force come from employers of STEM personnel and from their lobbyists and trade associations,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a Wertheim Fellow in science policy at Harvard University and a senior adviser at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Such claims have convinced some politicians and journalists, who echo them.”

UPDATE: Daniel Willingham has an excellent response to the editorial.


About Priscilla Bremser

Professor of Mathematics Middlebury College
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