These numbers, on the surface, don’t support the conventional wisdom about math performance: namely, that elementary school teachers need improvement and that the seeds of our students’ failure in higher math starts in the lower grades.
Elementary students are doing quite well. It’s only in advanced math, when the teachers are much more knowledgeable, with higher SAT scores and tougher credentialling tests, that student performance starts to decline dramatically.
What these numbers do suggest is that as math gets harder, fewer and fewer students achieve mastery, or anything near it. What they suggest, really, is that math knowledge doesn’t advance in a linear fashion. Shocking news, I know. We have all forgotten the Great Wisdom of Barbie. ...
Anyway. With numbers like these, it’s hard not to just see this entire debate as insanely pointless. In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.
If we could just get whites and Asians to do a lot worse, no one would argue about the absurdity of sending everyone to college.
Until then, everyone will divert themselves by engaging in this debate—which, like many kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations, will go nowhere.
Would teaching more statistics at a younger age do much for the quality of discourse in America? I don't know. In some ways, probabilistic thinking is an old man's game. It may not appeal much to the young, who are more imaginative, abstract, and idealistic.