March 13, 2008


Panel Proposes Streamlining Math (TAMAR LEWIN, 3/13/08, NY Times)

American students’ math achievement is “at a mediocre level” compared with that of their peers worldwide, according to a new report by a federal panel. The panel said that math curriculums from preschool to eighth grade should be streamlined to focus on key skills — the handling of whole numbers and fractions, and certain aspects of geometry and measurement — to prepare students to learn algebra. [...]

Closely tracking an influential 2006 report by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the panel said that the math curriculum should include fewer topics, and then spend enough time on each of them to make it is learned in depth and need not be revisited in later grades. This is how top-performing nations approach the curriculum.

Less is more, particularly for extraneous subjects like math and science.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2008 10:12 AM

The changes sound fine, but there's no particular reason to think that 8th grade math skills improves a nation's competitive performance.

Posted by: Ibid at March 13, 2008 11:51 AM

Official BrothersJuddBlod definition of an "extraneous" subject:

One OJ isn't any good at.

Posted by: Brandon at March 13, 2008 12:22 PM

Nevertheless, I'm with Ibid in thinking that the changes sound fine.

Posted by: Brandon at March 13, 2008 1:24 PM

Official BrothersJuddBlod [sic] definition of an "extraneous" subject:

One in which an immigrant (preferably illegal) can perform because their school(s) back home didn't consider then "extraneous" (see, India) or one which is not needed for the kind of job you seek when you stand outside Home Depot.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 13, 2008 2:37 PM

Blod/Blog. Hey, the 'd' and the 'g' are really close together.

Posted by: Brandon at March 13, 2008 3:32 PM

Surely you realize the "Juice" jests.

Posted by: Genecis at March 13, 2008 4:43 PM

No, I don't

And don't call me Shirley.

Posted by: Brandon at March 13, 2008 5:45 PM

I saw a some science education table in USA Today at lunch - I was surprised to see The Netherlands in 1st place. Only two nations ranked below the US - South Africa and Cyprus.

I don't know if this 'situation' is serious or not. I know that my math education was OK until about 9th/10th grade, when the bottom fell out (pirmarily because my algebra skills were so bad). I did not really enjoy math until I took calculus in college, but I sweated to get Bs and Cs, because my background was so weak. Once I got to differential equations, my left brain must have taken over, because I started to do better.

OJ likes to mock science (rightly so) because much of it today is pretentious, and some is downright phony. But the classical stuff of science (Archimedes, Euclid, Newton, Galen, Leibniz, Planck, Einstein, Maxwell, Fermi, etc.) is important.

Of course, the WSJ had a Section D front page piece today about teaching Engineering in elementary school. Very good. I know that I like technical stuff because of having good science (Chemistry) teachers in high school (and also from watching Star Trek).

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 13, 2008 5:59 PM

No one has known any mathy since the calculator came out, nevermind the computer.

Posted by: oj at March 13, 2008 6:00 PM

We're the only non-homogenous country that reports test results for everyone.

Posted by: oj at March 13, 2008 10:31 PM


That's not math, that's arithmetic. If I could do arithmetic I might have majored in physics rather than math... you might as well give up on teaching English because we have spellcheckers.

Posted by: Mike Earl at March 14, 2008 3:09 AM

A republican citizenry requires good English. They don't need math.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2008 6:14 AM

"They" cannot be an absolute, or lockbox Al would be President. Or Dennis Kucinich.

Somebody has to know and understand the 'fundamentals' of science/math, and be able to distinguish between good and bad work.

Facts are stubborn things. Bridges fall down. Airplanes break. To a large degree, math/science is the filter. It provides both a harsh unyielding template, and an elegant tapestry, to help us see the world.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 14, 2008 7:23 AM

Semantics again.

When arithmetic was elevated to the level of mathematics, the system broke down and it was no longer necessary or even particularly useful to memorize the multiplication tables. After all that's merely rote learning, so kids unable to handle long division or calculate percentages, are asked to leap into the abstract thinking. Without a working knowledge of arithmetic, algebra and geometry are very difficult for most kids and trigonometry is almost impossible.

I think this blog is the only place I've ever seen the simple truth that arithmetic and mathematics are not synonymous actually spoken out loud.

FYI -- Spell chek and grammar chek as well as calculators are a convenient tools for those who already know the answers to check for typos or their mental calculations. Anyone using a calculator should have a good approximation of answer. That's another thing -- are students taught to do that anymore?

As we've all seen in print here and elsewhere in the media, many writers don't know the difference between there, their and they're -- all of which are spelled correctly.

Posted by: erp at March 14, 2008 8:18 AM

Yes, if every kid in your local school was needed to design that bridge it might make sense to teach them how. They aren't.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2008 8:48 AM


An excellent point.

When I was about 8 months out of college, I was tasked to review a fairly lengthy calculation by a senior engineer in our office. Nobody really knew if it was correct or not (they didn't really know what he was doing, to be honest). I thought about it, sat down and just worked through the units, and discovered two major mistakes (kinematic and dynamic viscosity were mixed up, and a couple of constants had the wrong dimensions). He was angry, my boss was embarrassed (for him), and I realized that nobody ever thought about whether the initial result was even close. It wasn't a complicated thing, but people just threw their hands up. Today, it would be much worse, because I don't believe dimensional analysis is taught as much as it used to be.

OJ - a fair point about the bridge, but the reason it fell is because the gusset (re-inforcing support) plates underneath the deck were half as thick as they needed to be. That wasn't really a complicated issue, either.

Like when NASA'a probe to Mars crashed down on the surface - the design was done in English units, and then it was flown (controlled) in metric. Not a complicated problem, but a devastating one.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 14, 2008 7:11 PM

That's quite unaffected by you knowledge or lack of knowledge of math.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2008 9:54 PM

I can't agree - a more rigorous arithmetic background helps to catch errors like that (it tends to give you a quick/dirty detection on the initial result). A deeper math background gives you the art to find a much smoother path to a solution. They work together.

Now, in almost all cases, the computational path is known (the proper equations, material properties, constants, etc.). The appropriate margins of error are set. But without sufficient skill in arithmetic (and math), navigation through the calculations (or whatever) is almost blind. One has to know where the curbs are.

I don't know about you, but I would like the wing design team on the 787 to know just how far to set the flaps to maintain lift at slower speeds. I want the algorithm guy on my bank's database design team to know how to account for deposits made to an ATM. And the like.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 14, 2008 10:21 PM

I don't know about you, but I've never met a wing designer or bridge engineer. Specialization oughtn't be universal. It's a waste.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2008 7:17 AM

Maybe everyone needn't know how to design an airplane wing or build a bridge, but everyone should know the basics of reading, writing and 'rithmetic.

So equipped they are then prepared to take their talent and ambition where they like.

Posted by: erp at March 15, 2008 12:58 PM