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Tag: freakonomics

Time To Change The High School Menu

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Freakonomics sounds like it should be the study of strange business practices. But the books, radio show, live shows, and podcast that makes up that franchise tends to wander all over the place looking at problems in various parts of society. Which is probably a big reason why I like what they do.

A recent edition of the podcast took an odd-even-for-them detour titled “America’s Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up“. Although the program got stuck in a few of the usual cliches, including assuming that assessment was going to come in the form of a standardized test, I have to admit they did a pretty good job.

The math curriculum that most high students in the US are subjected to was created early in the previous century and is about as out of touch with the real world as anything in American education. Jo Boaler – author, Stanford professor, and math education reform leader – explains.

The curriculum that we teach in maths1 classrooms was really designed in days that are long past. It was a long time ago that somebody in the U.S. decided to teach what I think of as the geometry sandwich — a course of algebra for a whole year, followed by a course of geometry for a whole year, and then another course of algebra. I don’t know any other country that does that, and it’s part of the problem. So, I would change the curriculum to really reflect real mathematics, and I would also change it to reflect the 21st century, because maths still looks in classrooms pretty much as it did in Victorian days.

Geometry sandwich. Love it.

In the interview with Boaler, the host says that it’s “pretty obvious that we need a radical transformation in the math curriculum” (even if his program hasn’t made it “obvious” at that point) and asks her what students are missing.

When we look at the world out there and the jobs students are going to have, many students will be working with big data sets. So, we haven’t adapted to help students in the most important job many people will do, which is to work with data sets in different ways. So, statistics is really important, as a course, but is under-played. This is a fifth of the curriculum in England and has been for decades. But here in the U.S., it’s sort of a poor cousin to calculus.

Very few people will ever need or use Calculus.2 But the math sequence followed by the vast majority of high school students is focused on that one target.

On the other hand, even those adults who don’t work with big data sets will still need a good understanding of how big data sets work. How that data is collected, organized, analyzed, and presented. Or, very often these days, how it is obtained without the targets’ knowledge or consent, manipulated, and misused.

However, rather than simply add another course to the math curriculum, the program suggests that students should be studying the use of big data sets in subjects where they are actually used, like Biology and Government. Even better, that suggestion comes from the CEO of the College Board, purveyor of the Advanced Placement program and the SAT.

He was asked if the College Board had ever considered creating an AP data science course.

We have, but the more profound thing we’ve done, in candor, and I’ll explain why, is to include data science in the core exams we give like biology, like AP Government, is to make data analysis something you encounter over and over again.

I want to again push back slightly against the most powerful picture of data science as isolating it as a discipline all by itself. It often comes alive in its actual application to situations, and I would just be careful of that. And the reason why I’d be careful of making an AP data-science course is not because we don’t love it and think it’s valuable, but we find our courses spread much more quickly for all kids when they’re not an elective or a special course. That is, if I weave data analysis into AP biology that’s widely given, or if we weave it into AP Government and Politics, which 400,000 kids take, that will touch kids in public schools in all levels of our society. If I create an elective data-science course, that might only be taken by a few who choose to take it.

All of which addresses another problem with the high school curriculum, the ridged isolation of the subjects students study. Silos exist even within the broader topics. I’ve known many who thought of themselves as “Geometry teachers” or “government teachers” and would vigorously resist the suggestion to take another course in their department.

Anyway, there’s much more. And if you teach high school math, the whole podcast is worth an hour of your time. It might be even more relevant if you are simply someone who knows a teenager on whom that Geometry sandwich is being inflicted.

It’s time to radically change the high school math menu, and the ideas in this podcast would be a great place to start.


That math book pictured above was the one I used in high school. It was also the one I used in my first teaching assignment ten years later. It was still a fixture in math education when I left the classroom twenty years after that.

1. She’s British. She gets to use the term maths. I wish it was acceptable in the US since mathematics is not one thing. It is a wide and wonderful collection of many topics.

2. According to a study cited in the podcast, “About 2 percent said that they use calculus on a daily basis, and almost 80 percent say they never use it.”. I’ve read of others with similar results.

Listen To This

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Three podcast episodes I heard this past weekend that you might like…

Related to my recent rant concerning creativity as a skill, a segment of Freakonomics asked Where Do Good Ideas Come From? (61:34) The host spoke with a scientist, a graphic designer, a museum curator, James Dyson (of vacuum cleaner fame), and others about their creative process.

This is the third part in their series titled How To Be Creative and part two is also good, asking Why Do Schools Kill It Off?

Another podcast segment was also part three of a series, this one from Planet Money and dealing with the issue of antitrust (23:56). Specifically this segment discusses whether the size and reach of huge companies like Amazon “is a threat to competition, and ultimately to consumers”.

As with every segment of Planet Money, they do an excellent job of making a complex issue both interesting and even entertaining.

Finally is the first episode of a new podcast from the news site Quartz called Should This Exist? (33:36). Each segment looks at the promise of a new technology, along with the possible negative impact on both the user and society.

The first invention certainly fits the criteria: Halo is a headset that is supposed to stimulate the brain and help the wearer learn “as fast as a kid”. As they say, what could possibly go wrong?

My only criticism of the segment is that I don’t think the host challenged the inventor enough, especially on the potential ethical issues. But the premise of the podcast sounds like it will be worth at least a few more listens.

3-2-1 For 11-27-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

The death of Fidel Castro this week produced a lot of comment and, having recently visited Cuba, it was a story that caught my interest. One of the best pieces I read came from The Atlantic’s interview with “one of the leading historians of U.S.-Cuban relations” who actually interviewed Castro several times. Excellent historical context missing from so much US coverage. (about 12 minutes)

A new study finds that students in middle school through college have poor skills when it comes to evaluating the validity of material they read online. I know, not surprising. And it probably applies to many of their parents as well. I blame a school curriculum that emphasizes memorizing trivia and getting “right” answers over learning to analyze information. (about 5 minutes)

Over the past decade, much has been written about how digital devices are disrupting our ability to concentrate and messing with our memories. Nicholas Carr has created an entire career around that topic. One writer, however, says the idea is a myth and that every change in communications tools throughout human history was met by many of the same fears. (about 9 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

Technological breakthroughs and “moonshot” programs generate a lot of noise, but real, lasting progress usually comes in relatively small steps over long periods of time. Freakonomics has an interesting discussion in praise of that incrementalism. It’s a followup to the previous segment championing the value of maintaining what we already have, over innovation and the drive to produce something new. Both are worth a listen, in either order. (48:29 and 41:41) 1

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that nothing you find on a shelf in your supermarket lands there by accident. Manufacturers pay “slotting fees” to not only make their products available but also get them placed in a prime location. It’s a little geeky, but Vox does a good job of explaining the system, and why it could be both good and bad for the consumer. Nothing is ever simple. (6:58)

Teachers are the Problem, Right?

One of the podcasts I listen to every week is Freakonomics, which focuses on business and economics in everyday life and is based on the books of the same name. Most episodes are very interesting, although sometimes they reach a little too far in trying to make a connection, and once in a while fall off the rails altogether.

As with a recent edition in which they asked the question Is America’s Education Problem Just a Teacher Problem?. You can probably guess how that discussion went.

Start with the people involved. In addition to the host and co-author of the books we have the co-founder of KIPP, which the program describes as a “nationwide network of public schools”,2 a think tank economist, the author of a book on education history, and Joel Kline, a lawyer and former Chancellor of the New York City schools. No actual teachers, of course, and at least two people who are described as “educators” but who really are more business people.

Although there is so much wrong in this program, I still recommend a listen.2 If, however, you don’t want to spend the time, here’s a short summary of the conclusions, none of which should surprise you.

  1. Everyone agrees that most US students are not doing well, especially compared to those in other countries.
  2. Most US teachers “aren’t the best and brightest” and we need more “great” teachers.
  3. More great teachers will change #1 as well as improve the economy.
  4. But raising teacher salaries will not solve the problem, although “competition” (merit pay, charters, etc.) will.
  5. Teacher unions are bad and KIPP has everything figured out.

Finally, at the very end of the program, the host inadvertently stumbles across why the previous 35 minutes of talk was mostly wrong.

Think about it: a school has your kid for only seven hours a day, 180 days a year, or about 22 percent of the kid’s waking hours. Nor is all that time devoted to learning, once you account for socializing and eating and getting to and from class. And for many kids, the first three or four years of life is all parents and no school. But when serious people talk about education reform, they rarely talk about the family’s role in preparing children to succeed. That may be because the very words “education reform” indicate that the underlying question is “what’s wrong with our schools?” — which, these days, inevitably leads to “what’s wrong with our teachers”? [emphasis mine]

Reformers rarely talk about the family’s role. Or the part that a community plays in that other 78% of a child’s life. About whether living in poverty just might have more influence on a child’s future than any “great” teacher.

Maybe the underlying question of school reform shouldn’t be “what’s wrong with our schools?”, but instead “what’s wrong with our society?”.

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