Why Are Americans So Bad at Math?

The New York Times has a noteworthy piece on why math education is so poor in the United States. Borrowing examples from how math is taught in Japan, the article outlines how different initiatives to reform math education in America have failed (and why they are likely to continue to fail). Worth the read.

It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.

The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work. As a nation, we suffer from an ailment that John Allen Paulos, a Temple University math professor and an author, calls innumeracy — the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. On national tests, nearly two-thirds of fourth graders and eighth graders are not proficient in math. More than half of fourth graders taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress could not accurately read the temperature on a neatly drawn thermometer.

I hadn’t heard of this parable/story before, but it is quite the embarrassment:

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

Maybe we need to develop more system-wide efforts to showcase teaching styles to observers, like they do in Japan:

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked. Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers.

What else matters? That teachers embrace new teaching styles, and persevere:

Most policies aimed at improving teaching conceive of the job not as a craft that needs to be taught but as a natural-born talent that teachers either decide to muster or don’t possess. Instead of acknowledging that changes like the new math are something teachers must learn over time, we mandate them as “standards” that teachers are expected to simply “adopt.” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that their students don’t improve.

Here, too, the Japanese experience is telling. The teachers I met in Tokyo had changed not just their ideas about math; they also changed their whole conception of what it means to be a teacher. “The term ‘teaching’ came to mean something totally different to me,” a teacher named Hideto Hirayama told me through a translator. It was more sophisticated, more challenging — and more rewarding. “The moment that a child changes, the moment that he understands something, is amazing, and this transition happens right before your eyes,” he said. “It seems like my heart stops every day.”

Worth reading in entirety here.

Student Debt and The Boomerang Kids

The New York Times paints a bleak image on the student debt crisis in the United States of America in this magazine piece:

One in five people in their 20s and early 30s is currently living with his or her parents. And 60 percent of all young adults receive financial support from them. That’s a significant increase from a generation ago, when only one in 10 young adults moved back home and few received financial support. The common explanation for the shift is that people born in the late 1980s and early 1990s came of age amid several unfortunate and overlapping economic trends. Those who graduated college as the housing market and financial system were imploding faced the highest debt burden of any graduating class in history. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds, for instance, have outstanding loans, with an average debt above $20,000. (Kasinecz still has about $60,000 to go.) And more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they make substandard wages in jobs that don’t require a college degree. According to Lisa B. Kahn, an economist at Yale University, the negative impact of graduating into a recession never fully disappears. Even 20 years later, the people who graduated into the recession of the early ’80s were making substantially less money than people lucky enough to have graduated a few years afterward, when the economy was booming.

Worth the click for the slide show alone.

Admission Rate to Prestigious Colleges Hits All-Time Low

“Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.”

That’s from this New York Times piece, which cites that Stanford accepted an ultra-low 5% of candidates this year.

Part of the reason for such low admission rates? It’s way too easy to apply to multiple colleges with the common application, compared to the way it was less than a decade ago:

At the same time, students send more applications than they once did, abetted by the electronic forms that have become nearly universal, and uniform applications that can make adding one more college to the list just a matter of a mouse click. Seven years ago, 315 colleges and universities accepted the most widely used form, the Common Application; this year, 517 did.

How Creativity is Becoming an Academic Discipline

A fascinating New York Times piece on how some schools are leveraging the obscure field of creativity into teaching it in academia:

Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill. Pin it on pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking, or on the need for ingenuity in a fluid landscape.

“The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative,” says Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, which has the nation’s oldest creative studies program, having offered courses in it since 1967.

“That is why you are seeing more attention to creativity at universities,” he says. “The marketplace is demanding it.”

Critical thinking has long been regarded as the essential skill for success, but it’s not enough, says Dr. Puccio. Creativity moves beyond mere synthesis and evaluation and is, he says, “the higher order skill.” This has not been a sudden development. Nearly 20 years ago “creating” replaced “evaluation” at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. In 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M. survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries. These days “creative” is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles two years running.

Very good point in this last paragraph:

The point of creative studies, says Roger L. Firestien, a Buffalo State professor and author of several books on creativity, is to learn techniques “to make creativity happen instead of waiting for it to bubble up. A muse doesn’t have to hit you.”

Also see the related slide show here; this one is my favorite:

vitamin_fork_and_spoon

How a Dog Named Pete Got an MBA Degree

This is an interesting investigation by the BBC about how easy it is to fake credentials and get an MBA degree from The American University of London. In exchange for a fee, of course.

The American University of London (AUOL) awarded a fictitious person created by the programme a Master’s in Business in exchange for a £4,500 fee.

AUOL has insisted it is “not a bogus university” and defended the robustness of the qualifications it offers.

Newsnight has found hundreds of senior executives listing AUOL qualifications.

The programme contacted some of them, but they all insisted that they had had to study for their degrees.

AUOL styles itself as a pioneer of distance learning, offering degrees and post-graduate qualifications in business, IT, law, education and liberal arts, humanities, and English to more than 100,000 students worldwide.

Its website claims that that all of their courses “have been designed to the most exacting standards, in accordance with the most stringent criteria, in order to provide outstanding education at an affordable price”.

However, Newsnight found that getting the university to provide a qualification without any study at all was easy.

The programme drew up a one-page fake CV for a management consultant Peter Smith, known as Pete, living in South London, which included 15 years of made-up work experience and a fictitious undergraduate degree from a UK university.

The real Pete was actually a dog living in Battersea Dogs’ Home.

Read the rest here.

Is Homework in American Schools Getting Harder and Longer?

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Karl Greenfield has a lengthy piece titled “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” on attempting to do his 13-year-old daughter’s homework for one week. Comparing to his past, he is overwhelmed by how much homework is assigned to her daughter on a nightly basis.

I don’t remember how much homework was assigned to me in eighth grade. I do know that I didn’t do very much of it and that what little I did, I did badly. My study habits were atrocious. After school I often went to friends’ houses, where I sometimes smoked marijuana, and then I returned home for dinner; after lying to my parents about not having homework that night, I might have caught an hour or two of television. In Southern California in the late ’70s, it was totally plausible that an eighth grader would have no homework at all.

If my daughter came home and said she had no homework, I would know she was lying. It is inconceivable that her teachers wouldn’t assign any.

What has changed? It seems that while there has been widespread panic about American students’ falling behind their peers in Singapore, Shanghai, Helsinki, and everywhere else in science and mathematics, the length of the school day is about the same. The school year hasn’t been extended. Student-teacher ratios don’t seem to have changed much. No, our children are going to catch up with those East Asian kids on their own damn time.

Every parent I know in New York City comments on how much homework their children have. These lamentations are a ritual whenever we are gathered around kitchen islands talking about our kids’ schools.

Is it too much?

Well, imagine if after putting in a full day at the office—and school is pretty much what our children do for a job—you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. Monday through Friday. Plus Esmee gets homework every weekend. If your job required that kind of work after work, how long would you last?

This exchange caught my attention (I hadn’t heard of this cross-disciplinary work being popular in schools):

One assignment had her calculating the area and perimeter of a series of shapes so complex that my wife, who trained as an architect in the Netherlands, spent half an hour on it before coming up with the right answers. The problem was not the complexity of the work, it was the amount of calculating required. The measurements included numbers like 78 13/64, and all this multiplying and dividing was to be done without a calculator. Another exercise required Esmee to find the distance from Sacramento—we were living in California—to every other state capital in America, in miles and kilometers. This last one caused me to question the value of the homework.

What possible purpose could this serve?, I asked her teacher in a meeting.

She explained that this sort of cross-disciplinary learning—state capitals in a math class—was now popular. She added that by now, Esmee should know all her state capitals. She went on to say that in class, when the students had been asked to name the capital of Texas, Esmee answered Texas City.

But this is a math class, I said. I don’t even know the state capitals.

The teacher was unmoved, saying that she felt the homework load was reasonable. If Esmee was struggling with the work, then perhaps she should be moved to a remedial class.

Worth the read, especially if you’re a parent with kids in K-12.

Battushig Myanganbayar: From Mongolia to M.I.T.

This is a very cool story of Battushig Myanganbayar, a 16-year-old teenager from Ulan Bator, Mongolia who caught the attention of M.IT. officials by participating and doing exceptionally well in an online course (a MOOC) in Circuits & Electronics. He has now enrolled in M.I.T. as a freshman as a result of his accomplishment.

Battushig has the round cheeks of a young boy, but he is not your typical teenager. He hasn’t read Harry Potter (“What will I learn from that?”) and doesn’t like listening to music (when a friend saw him wearing headphones, he couldn’t believe it; it turned out Battushig was preparing for the SAT). His projects are what make him happy. “In electrical engineering, there is no limit,” he said. “It is like playing with toys.” He unveiled Garage Siren in August 2012, posting instructions and a demonstration video on YouTube. The project impressed officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where Battushig planned to apply for college — but at that point they were already aware of his abilities. Two months earlier, Battushig, then 15, became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC — a college course filmed and broadcast free or nearly free to anyone with an Internet connection — offered by the university.

How does a student from a country in which a third of the population is nomadic, living in round white felt tents called gers on the vast steppe, ace an M.I.T. course even though nothing like this is typically taught in Mongolian schools? The answer has to do with Battushig’s extraordinary abilities, of course, but also with the ambitions of his high-school principal. Enkhmunkh Zurgaanjin, the principal of the Sant School, was the first Mongolian to graduate from M.I.T., in 2009, and he has tried since then to bring science and technology labs to his students. “My vision,” he told me, “is to have more skilled engineers to develop Mongolia. To do that, everything has to start from the beginning.” In the past decade, Mongolia, which had limited landlines, invested heavily in its information technology infrastructure and now has an extensive 3G network. Most homes in Ulan Bator have Internet connections, and almost everyone, including nomads, has at least one cellphone. Even on the steppe, with only sheep in sight, you can get a signal.

On comparing these Mongolian students to the M.I.T. students taking this same course:

Battushig was one of 20 students, ranging in age from 13 to 17, to enroll in the class. About half dropped out. The course is difficult in any setting — M.I.T. sophomores often pull all-nighters — and the Mongolian students were taking it in a second language. Battushig, however, thrived. “I can’t compare it to a regular class,” he said. “I had never done that kind of thing before. It was really a watershed moment for me.” To help his classmates, he made videos in Mongolian that offered pointers and explanations of difficult concepts and posted them on YouTube. Kim, who had taught similar classes at M.I.T., told me, “If Battushig, at the age of 15, were a student at M.I.T., he would be one of the top students — if not the top.

I don’t think this kind of exposure for anyone would have been possible before the advent of the MOOCs. Or at the very least, incredibly difficult. Quite an impressive accomplishment for Battushig. The story highlights that the MOOCs democratize education, but they also can serve as a way for universities to attract top talent from all over the globe.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Free Online

This is an incredibly generous endeavor by Caltech: they have published The Feynman Lectures on Physics in HTML format, available for free:

Caltech and The Feynman Lectures Website are pleased to present this online edition of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Now, anyone with internet access and a web browser can enjoy reading a high-quality up-to-date copy of Feynman’s legendary lectures. This edition has been designed for ease of reading on devices of any size or shape; text, figures and equations can all be zoomed without degradation.

Amazing.

Get your fix of Volume I.

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Notes:

1) If you’re wondering, the hardcover set of the lectures goes for around $180 on Amazon.

2) Read why Richard Feynman is my favourite scientist.

The South Korean Teacher Who Makes $4 Million Per Year

The Wall Street Journal profiles Kim Ki-hoon, who earns $4 million a year in South Korea as a rock-star teacher. He has been teaching for over 20 years, all of them in the country’s private, after-school tutoring academies, known as hagwons. Unlike most teachers across the globe, he is paid according to the demand for his skills—and he is in very high demand:

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

A bit more on how Mr. Kim makes his income:

The bulk of Mr. Kim’s earnings come from the 150,000 kids who watch his lectures online each year. (Most are high-school students looking to boost their scores on South Korea’s version of the SAT.) He is a brand name, with all the overhead that such prominence in the market entails. He employs 30 people to help him manage his teaching empire and runs a publishing company to produce his books.

To call this mere tutoring is to understate its scale and sophistication. Megastudy, the online hagwon that Mr. Kim works for, is listed on the South Korean stock exchange. (A Megastudy official confirmed Mr. Kim’s annual earnings.) Nearly three of every four South Korean kids participate in the private market. In 2012, their parents spent more than $17 billion on these services. That is more than the $15 billion spent by Americans on videogames that year, according to the NPD Group, a research firm. The South Korean education market is so profitable that it attracts investments from firms like Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group and A.I.G.

Welcome to the new economy.

Georgia Tech Announces an Online Masters Degree in Computer Science

Major news from my alma mater, Georgia Tech, today: the university is offering an Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) for less than $7,000. The collaboration is among Georgia Tech, Udacity, and AT&T.

From the official announcement:

All OMS CS course content will be delivered via the massive open online course (MOOC) format, with enhanced support services for students enrolled in the degree program. Those students also will pay a fraction of the cost of traditional on-campus master’s programs; total tuition for the program is initially expected to be below $7,000. A pilot program, partly supported by a generous gift from AT&T, will begin in the next academic year. Initial enrollment will be limited to a few hundred students recruited from AT&T and Georgia Tech corporate affiliates. Enrollment is expected to expand gradually over the next three years.

Here is Sebastian Thrun, c0-founder of Udacity, on how this degree will revolutionize education:

I co-founded Udacity to bring the very best of higher education to everyone worldwide. With Georgia Tech, we have a partner whose computer science program is among the best in the world! And equally importantly, with AT&T, we partner with a Fortune-500 company which is relentlessly innovating in the space of digital access to information. This triumvirate of industry and academia is now teaming up to use 21st Century MOOC technology to level the playing field in computer science education. And while the degree rightfully comes with a tuition fee — after all, to achieve the very best in online education we will provide support services — the bare content will be available free of charge, available for anyone eager to learn. We are also launching non-credit certificates at a much reduced price point, to give a path to those who don’t care about Georgia Tech credit or degrees, but still want their learning results certified.

Thrun is enthusiastic about this opportunity and likes this launch to the day he proposed to his wife.

As for why CS is the first to be the first degree of its kind as a MOOC? Per the FAQs:

Computer science is defined by the ability to train and test students within a rubric of discrete, quantifiable problems and solutions. This makes computer science much more amenable to the massive-online format.

Only a matter of time until physics, math, and other STEM fields get added. Welcome to the future!