Unthinking Mathematics

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

If you find recent college graduates to be computationally challenged (i. e., unable to do basic math), don’t expect that to change anytime soon. As we recently reported,  the American Institutes of Research found that “Approximately 30 percent of students in 2-year institutions and 20 percent of students in 4-year institutions have Basic or below quantitative literacy.” In other words, “they are unable to estimate if their car has enough gasoline to get to the next gas station or calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies.”

Against this backdrop, a growing cadre of pedagogues want to change the curriculum, but not in a manner that is likely to make it easier for students to compute rapidly at cash registers they encounter on a more or less daily basis, whether as customers or cashiers.

“When math is embedded in important issues—from racial disparities in school expulsions to the rate of global warming—every child has a contribution to make and a stake in the answers,” the editors of Rethinking Schools write. “This is ‘real-world’ math, not calculations about which train gets to the station first.” Unfortunately, most students will have to catch trains before global warming occurs.

The editors then go on to add, without irony, “This is not about political indoctrination or using curriculum to prove a point.”  “Rethinking Schools is a nonprofit, independent amagazine advocating the reform of public schools, with an emphasis on urban schools and issues of equity and social justice,” the publication’s masthead reads.

In the Spring 2013 issue of RS, contributors from around the country show how they embed math:

  • Eric “Rico” Gutstein uses the unmathematical equation 150,000-291,000=92,000 to show “how banks lend money and make money.” “You’ve paid $291,000 on a $150,000 mortgage and you still owe $92,000,” he explains to students at the Social Justice High School in Chicago; and
  • Flannery Denny poses questions to her math students at the Manhattan Country School like, “Why do you think that African-Americans have gained 26 seats in the House of Representatives over the course of my lifetime, but there is still only one black senator?”

Yet and still, both Gutstein and Denny might be able to continue their experiments under the Obama Administration’s Common Core Initiative. As Michelle Malkin reports: “Under Common Core, as the American Principles Project and Pioneer Institute point out, algebra I instruction is pushed to 9th grade, instead of 8th grade, as commonly taught. Division is postponed from 5th to 6th grade. Prime factorization, common denominators, conversions of fractions and decimals, and algebraic manipulation are de-emphasized or eschewed. Traditional Euclidean geometry is replaced with an experimental approach that had not been previously pilot-tested in the U.S.”


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org.