MATH PHOBIA AND FAILURE MAKE THE NEWS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 20, 2006 - A series about high school graduation rates in the Los Angeles Times has provoked a flurry of responses, among them a column in the Washington Post which inspired its own uber-flurry. Unfortunately, a number of important issues have been lost in what comes across as a blizzard of clichés and self-serving defensiveness.
The original series is currently available at latimes.com under the title "The Vanishing Class." It describes a suburban high school run by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
The story builds around the fact that, out of 1087 students who entered Birmingham High School as freshmen in the fall of 2001, a mere 582 have won a high school diploma as of now, and only 425 did so at Birmingham itself. Another 157 received some sort of certification through other means.
We are provided mini-biographies of students who dropped out due to pregnancy, disinterest, lack of ability or for wholly unexplainable reasons. A few graduates are introduced to readers, but these are marginal students; the series completely avoids any description of students who thrived.
The article that has provoked the strongest response is written by Duke Helfand: "Algebra: A Formula for Failure in L.A. Schools" is the second in the four-part series. As his story explains, under new rules it is necessary for students to pass algebra in order to obtain a high school diploma. The schools are responding by enrolling students en masse in 9th grade algebra. The carnage is frightening: "A majority of ninth-graders in Los Angeles fail algebra or pass with a D grade." A sidebar provides these statistics: Students passing with a C or above: 39%; Passing with a D: 17%; Receiving an F: 44%.
Some students eventually pass, but a considerable number never do.
The poster-child for this story is Gabriela Ocampo. as Helfand writes, "Gabriela failed that first semester of freshman algebra. She failed again and again — six times in six semesters. And because students in Los Angeles Unified schools must pass algebra to graduate, her hopes for a diploma grew dimmer with each F. Midway through 12th grade, Gabriela gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School."
Algebra, it turns out, is the single worst hurdle preventing many students from receiving their diplomas.
This series has inspired a furious debate over several issues, among them the responsibilities of parents, the failure of the educational system and a somewhat deeper discussion on whether or not there should be some alternative to a passing grade in algebra in the diploma sweepstakes.
There are some additional issues, one of particular interest to students of the mass media, but let's take up the hottest issue first.
Richard Cohen, writing in the Washington Post (available online as "What Is the Value of Algebra?") begins, "I am haunted by Gabriela Ocampo." He goes on to tell his own story - he suffered terribly in high school algebra, barely passed his second time around ("The only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention ..."), but has managed to make a productive life for himself as a writer. In what may have been an attempt to be provocative, Cohen wrote a paragraph that has been the subject of anger and derision:
Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.
Cohen added more spice to the pot: "Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know - never mind want to know - how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later - or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator"
You would have thought he endorsed Bin Laden, the kind of response that ensued. Emails by the dozens and then by the hundreds have filled discussion sites as learned professionals discoursed on the importance of math. Many responders mentioned the unfortunate Ms. Ocampo, who is now trying to develop a trade as a medical assistant: they wouldn't want her to miscalculate their dosage of medication, and so on. Some referred to the beauties of math as an aesthetic worthy unto itself, to the utility of math as intellectual training and to its usefulness in a wide range of disciplines.
Still others pointed out that Cohen might not be so contemptuous of math if he were trying to make a living in a discipline more rigorous than journalism. More on this juicy point later, because it bears on the whole question of journalistic objectivity and perhaps even on a thorny issue involving disclosure.
First, a bit on how the Times made this into an interactive discussion. Readers may remember an attempt by the Times to create its own "Wiki" version of an editorial (a "Wiki" is a piece that can be modified by anyone via an Internet connection). The editors were surprised to find that they couldn't keep up with the torrent of profanity and pornography that filled their site within a few hours. They closed the Wiki.
Now, they have reopened for business using a more careful approach. They have opened a comments section, but now require that every submission be reviewed by editors before being posted.
This is based on an old Internet model (a "moderated discussion list") and it works. This one has been an amazing thing to read: Dozens upon dozens of people have provided full essays. They tend to sort out into a few major categories: parents need to take responsibility; schools need to intervene earlier; schools need to recognize the special needs of students; many students arrive at the ninth grade unprepared; maybe we could offer an alternative to students who just can't do algebra; students are lazy and rebellious nowadays (generally from people who claim to be teachers).
In another forum indicative of the interest in this subject (washingtonmonthly.com), there are over 150 algebra comments.
So in grading the Times and its editors, we should recognize achievement at this level of creativity: What began as a news story has expanded into an interactive discussion among hundreds of contributors in many venues.
There are other levels of inquiry for which we have to be more critical, namely the substance of the series itself and the competence of the writers.
First, the series casually mentions the fact that many algebra students lack a background in basic math. If a large number of students lack junior high school competence in math, this surely will have an effect on their efforts to survive algebra.
How did this happen? It is a deep question and the series is largely silent on it. The critical question then becomes, can we figure out how to prevent this problem in the next generation? The Times series again leaves this question untouched.
Second, the series avoids a philosophical issue that goes to the heart of policy: Somehow, parents and schools need to explain to students that choices they make have consequences, even choices made by third graders. If you don't listen in class and don't do your homework, you are going to miss out.
This should not be misconstrued as illiberal, in spite of its conservative sound. The fact is that students who get behind are likely to fall further and further behind. The distinction between liberalism and conservatism goes to the steps we might take to prevent or cure such problems, but the truth of the argument should be apparent. The community-wide failure to teach this lesson to its children is a major issue for our civilization which goes largely unremarked except by a few preachers and by good parents. The Times misses the conclusion, even as it supplies the proof.
Finally, there is an issue that goes more to the subject of journalism itself. Curiously enough, it reveals itself through the comments contributed by dozens of outsiders.
Most of the commenters introduced themselves by way of experience and competence. Teachers introduced themselves as teachers, while the math-phobic explained their side of the story. Education professionals presented their credentials, not unlike expert witnesses testifying in court. This provided readers with information by which to judge credibility and, equally important, to understand the point of view being described.
By contrast, modern "objective" journalism offers us nothing of the sort. We understand essentially nothing about the writers' expertise in math, teaching or child rearing.
We are handed a long list of conclusions in the text: "High school teachers blame middle schools for churning out ill-prepared students." "The strategy has also failed to provide students with what they need most: a review of basic math." "Whether requiring all students to pass algebra is a good idea or not, two things are clear: Schools have not been equipped to teach it, and students have not been equipped to learn it."
These assertions may be largely true, somewhat true, or untrue. I don't really know how to evaluate them because I don't quite trust the expertise of the reporters. My experience with reporters is that they get some things right, miss some things, and completely fail to understand technical issues much of the time.
The one most amusing part of all this is that one writer, and one alone, provided his credentials as part of making his case, and that was our math-phobic Richard Cohen. His argument rings true because he has the expertise to back it up. He is able to sell us on the idea that some people just don't do math, because he offers up his own history in evidence.
In a sense, this is all part of the larger question of journalistic disclosure (these writers didn't tell us about their own expertise or biases). People who write about math teaching without knowing much about math should make disclosure. Only one did.
I was intending to discuss this in a different context, but it fits here. There is a television show about a couple of genius mathematicians, one of whom has a brother who is an FBI agent. You may recognize it as NUMB3RS (CBS).
The one thing most striking about this show is that it teaches the viewer nothing whatsoever about math. Various higher level mathematical approaches are presented more or less like magical wands, but the viewer gains no new insights about math itself. It works as a shoot-em-up where math takes the place of the Shadow's powers, but that's about it.