In Which the New York Times Astonishes Me

I’m a bit late, but I did want to respond to a New York Times editorial that seemed to produce the most jaw-dropping responses in recent memory.  Fortunately, a Washington Post blogger has already produced a wonderful response that summarizes most of what I want to say.  But there is a bit I want to add.

  • Hacker’s selection of “other schools” to prove math is too important in college admissions struck me as ironic.  Rice, WashU, and Vanderbilt are all top  20 schools.  They also all have fairly big engineering programs, so that would skew the math score of the “average admitted student” higher.  If Hacker truly wanted to show readers that math is over-emphasized in admissions, he should have considered looking at SAT scores from state schools, which are obligated to take on more students as public institutions (but again, make sure to not take schools which are incredibly competitive, so rule out ones like UC Berkeley, UT-Austin, or Michigan), or scores for liberal arts colleges, which tend to place less emphasis on SAT scores.
  • The poor logic here can be used on any subject taken for multiple years in high school.  By his logic, why bother with more than one year of English? It’s just reading different books and doing increasingly more rigorous analysis.  One could argue you don’t really need to understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile unless you’re going into English, linguistics, or some other language-focused fields.  You could just do a single year covering important literature and another year on grammar and composition.

This op-ed seems to follow what I consider a worrying trend in science education.     Many people seem to think science education needs to be more “practical”.   I’ve heard of middle and high schools that are magnets in broad topics like “sustainability” and “health”.  While things like art and science magnet programs make sense to me, because it basically means a school has additional resources like extra lab equipment or more instructors for specialized classes, I don’t get how you teach something as interdisciplinary as health to a high school student still taking basic biology, chemistry, and social studies without taking away from the more general concepts of these fields.

I remember an LA Times piece several years ago about a sustainability magnet program that had kids growing a garden in biology and somehow tying that into every class.  As Wilingham points out, what happens to students when they need to do something besides botany in biology?  But I also wonder if this early, practical education has another downside.  If a student doesn’t like the application the class focuses on, will they still consider liking the subject?  At my undergrad school, we didn’t have a singular biology department; we had an ecology department and a molecular biology department.  I had several friends in both, and I could certainly see my molecular biology friend interested in genetic engineering being completely bored by growing and observing plants as well as my ecologist friend hating a medically-oriented biology class.  Our current, “grab-bag” science education system might not be the best, but I feel that we’re more likely to get students interested and educated in science by introducing them to basic concepts and applying them to everyday life instead of having their first taste be a specialization.


3 thoughts on “In Which the New York Times Astonishes Me

  1. Although I’m not a huge fan of Hacker’s ideas, I think the purpose of specialty schools/courses in middle and high school gets lost a bit. The biggest boon from application-focused courses (whether as a general philosophy or a specific project) is that SOME kids get interested. In 2011, only 21% of 12th graders (aka those who DIDN’T drop out) were proficient in science. In disadvantaged areas, that number is in single digits. Even if two thids of kids hate growing their plants, if a third start paying attention, doing their work, and asking questions we’ve already increased the proficiency rate by at least 50%. Furthermore, kids know about these specialty schools going in and what to expect. Sure, some parents will send their kids without paying attention and some kids will just go because they got in, but most kids will be there because they LIKE plants or art or engineering design. And if they can admit to liking some part of school, that’s a big part of the battle.

  2. Pingback: Following Up on Algebra and Science Debate | nontrivial problems

  3. Pingback: We DO Use Math… Kinda | nontrivial problems

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