College-prep? City council candidates and math education!

City council candidates and math education? Those are two utterly unrelated topics, aren’t they? But there turns out to be a connection.

First of all, this afternoon I had already been intending to comment on an op-ed piece from this morning’s New York Times, titled “How to Fix Our Math Education.” And I was going to relate it to a comment by Frank Baker, candidate for Boston City Council from the Third District (where I live). But I didn’t actually finish the post before dinner, and then I had to leave immediately in order to go hear all seven of the candidates participate in a candidates’ forum. So let’s discuss all three topics: the op-ed piece, the candidates’ forum, and the connecting link: Frank Baker.

The op-ed piece, by the distinguished Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford, argues for a major change in the emphasis of high-school mathematics. Their views are basically correct, so go read their entire essay. Here is a brief excerpt so you can see what their claim is:

This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life…. Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering. In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages. In the basic engineering course, students would learn the workings of engines, sound waves, TV signals and computers. Science and math were originally discovered together, and they are best learned together now.

The reason I say that their views are only “basically” correct is that such a curriculum would not be sufficient for students preparing for any career that requires a traditional mathematical background. Even though only a small minority of college-students study science, engineering, and pre-med courses, they need to be well served, and it would be folly to think that we can identify exactly who those students will be when they’re in tenth grade (although many countries do exactly that). We could just offer Garfunkel and Mumford’s solution to non-honors students, but who wants to increase the difference between honors and non-honors courses? That wouldn’t be good either. Some kind of a combination is needed, where students could move more in one direction or another in their last two years of high school, and where the ideas presented in the op-ed piece are incorporated into the traditional program as well. The first of these solutions is what we do at Weston High School, where we offer three semesters of “Applied Discrete Math Concepts” to those who want something different from the traditional pre-calculus and calculus courses. While many of the students who elect this course tend to be our weaker math students, that is far from universally true, and some excellent math students even take Applied Discrete Math in addition to precalculus.

Now let’s move to the apparently unrelated candidates’ forum. We have a surprisingly large field this year, as our long-term councilor, the hard-working Maureen Feeney, is retiring after serving many years. Of the seven candidates who are vying to succeed her, two are clearly Republicans (even though they might not admit it) and I won’t comment on their ideas or their presentations at the forum. The Boston City Council is officially non-partisan, but the other five candidates are clearly Democrats. Three of them gave pretty weak presentations tonight, leaving only the remaining two, whose supporters are coincidentally the only ones whose supporters you will see in this picture:

It may be a little difficult to tell from the picture, but this crowd on both sides of the street was almost entirely white, a bad sign in racially mixed Dorchester. Inside the hall I counted close to 300 people in the audience, of whom 98% were white. So much for “racially mixed.”

Finally, how are these two topics related? The connection is a paragraph last week in the Dorchester Reporter:

Baker suggested the city bring back trade schools and attempt to replicate popular schools like the Richard Murphy K-8 School. “Why aren’t we looking at that and trying to apply it to other schools?” he said.

But here’s the dilemma. On the one hand, college isn’t for everyone, and vocational programs can do a lot to keep kids in school and teach them useful skills. On the other hand, it seems unbearably classist to say that Weston should have a college-preparatory program and Boston should be oriented toward life skills. I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma. Weston is so college-oriented that “college-prep” is the name for our lowest level of courses! Everything that isn’t honors or AP is college-prep. Students who want vocational training can go to Minuteman Career and Technical High School, which offers an excellent program — but it is socially deprecated in Weston and kids don’t want to be separated from their friends. So basically everyone in Weston is assumed to be college-bound. Boston, of course, is far more diverse. Even if it doesn’t bring back trade schools as an option, the kind of math curriculum proposed by Garfunkel and Mumford would at least be a start.

Categories: Dorchester/Boston, Teaching & Learning, Weston