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Education Math United States

How US Schools' Culture Stifles Math Achievement 888

Zarf writes "I'd like to file a bug report on the US educational system. The New York Times reports on a recent study that shows the US fails to encourage academic talent as a culture.'"There is something about the culture in American society today which doesn't really seem to encourage men or women in mathematics," said Michael Sipser, the head of M.I.T.'s math department. "Sports achievement gets lots of coverage in the media. Academic achievement gets almost none."' While we've suspected that the US might be falling behind academically, this study shows that it is actually due to cultural factors that are devaluing the success of our students. I suspect there's a flaw in the US cultural system that prevents achievement on the academic front from being perceived as valuable. Could anyone suggest a patch for this bug or is this cause for a rewrite?"
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How US Schools' Culture Stifles Math Achievement

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  • Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MarkvW ( 1037596 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:20PM (#25333899)

    Make it financially rewarding to learn and teach math.

    • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

      by isBandGeek() ( 1369017 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:24PM (#25333963)
      Exactly. When NFL quarterbacks get millions and top-of-the-line math teachers get a few tens of thousands, guess which way a physically fit but also smart student would go.
      • by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:43PM (#25334185) Homepage Journal
        "Exactly. When NFL quarterbacks get millions and top-of-the-line math teachers get a few tens of thousands, guess which way a physically fit but also smart student would go."

        My thinking soon as someone starts earning 7+ figures, is on TV, gets endorsment money from calculator companies, and all the chicks they can handle, then people will start migrating to and excelling at mathematics in droves.

        Trouble is, you don't generally get famous and rich solving derivatives.

        • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

          by dalurka ( 540445 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:09PM (#25334511)
          The people that grew up with the moon landings on TV are getting old and replaced by a generation that did not have such great role models. Many of the scientist today were inspired by the astronauts. Today science is not that high profile. We need something like the moon landings to inspire children for a lifetime.
          • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Interesting)

            by FlyByPC ( 841016 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:59PM (#25335011) Homepage

            The people that grew up with the moon landings on TV are getting old and replaced by a generation that did not have such great role models.

            Case in point? I'm 35; Apollo 17 (the last Moon shot) splashed down the day I was born. I'm old enough to run for President, and nobody has been on the moon in my lifetime. There are good, well-known science, math, and engineering role models out there (Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, Burt Rutan, Bill Nye, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku etc) -- but they're nowhere near as conspicuous as famous athletes.

            What would help is some good publicity for all of the cool science, math, and engineering being done. MythBusters, despite what the purists would say, has done a lot to encourage a love of science -- or at least something resembling the scientific process. Junkyard Wars, and even the various robot-battle shows help get kids (and us older kids) interested in science and technology.

            How about fewer popularity-contest "reality" shows, and more technical/scientific contests? You can pump up the "cool factor" and still have quite a bit of good science content.

        • by Zancarius ( 414244 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @09:41PM (#25335355) Homepage Journal

          This is true, and I would like to add my $0.02 regarding the school system.

          Part of the problem with our educational system is that we don't reward outstanding performance as we once did. I am told by a parent of a young child in a local school that they have an award ceremony where they now have the cut-off for rewards around an average of 70 and up. During the ceremony, at least 3/4ths of the class receives awards.

          Anymore, there is simply no need to perform exceptionally well when most of the class is going to wind up with the same recognition. School officials are reluctant to recognize the students who perform better than--for example--98% of the rest of the class because doing so would be considered unfair to the others. Such "de-stratification" doesn't exist at the college level (yet) and as a result, many new high school graduates are dumbfounded to discover that they are no longer pushed through the system with the relative ease they've grown to expect.

          The same thing has happened in mathematics. When a student merely needs to perform just well enough to make the grade, there's no motive to excel. We've stripped rewards and recognition for those who perform truly outstanding work in comparison to their peers simply on the basis of fearing for the self-esteem of the former. In short, we reap what we sow.

          So, there you have it. Our society has fallen so far behind because we cherish mediocrity over bringing harm to the self-esteem of others. Yet, for professional sports, competition among athletes is encouraged; competition among students is increasingly discouraged. Is it any wonder why few children see a need to rise above their peers and become someone exceptional?

      • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:45PM (#25334197)

        When a math teacher can get millions of people to watch commercials and thousands of people to pay $40 to watch them teach math for 2 hours, then they'll get paid as much as pro athletes.

        Some use of mass media might actually make this closer to reality. The best math teachers could teach millions of students using video and the Internet -- with lower-paid local assistants to help one-on-one and answer questions.

        But the current union structure of education makes experiments like this impossible. Unions don't want one teacher teaching thousands of students. They want the maximum number of union teachers teaching the minimum number of students. It's not about quality. It's not about productivity. It's not about achievement. It's about expanding the union payroll and nothing else.

        • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

          by CRCulver ( 715279 ) <> on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:05PM (#25334463) Homepage

          But the current union structure of education makes experiments like this impossible. Unions don't want one teacher teaching thousands of students. They want the maximum number of union teachers teaching the minimum number of students. It's not about quality. It's not about productivity. It's not about achievement. It's about expanding the union payroll and nothing else.

          Blaming teacher unions for unsatisfactory results is a kneejerk response. A few months back, the Wall Street Journal had an article on how many American educators are looking to Finland for teaching models, because Finland has remarkably high student achievement across the board. Yet, Finland and its fellow Nordic countries are marked by some of the strongest unions on the planet.

          Furthermore, I suspect many individual American teachers, not just the union fatcats you imagine, would prefer teaching classes as small as possible. The best teachers get great pleasure out of directing young people and showing them that learning can be fun. If you have too many students, it's just too impersonal and the emotional contact is lost.

          • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

            by reynolds_john ( 242657 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @11:50PM (#25336289)

            My father was a college level teacher for over 50 years. Tenure and unions are very important aspects of college career. Here's why:

            During the civil rights movement, my [white] father held on to his job while being able to protest blacks *not* being allowed into university. If it wasn't for the tenure, he would certainly have been let go.
            You see, universities teach science, philosophy, and other disciplines which frequently go against the cultural fad of the day. It is important for freedom of thought to be part of education; without it, teachers would live under constant fear of being fired for simply expressing non-PC views. Think of the number of nuts who want creationism taught as "science" in school.

            Universities are turning more and more to private enterprise for funding. This is dangerous, because it lets pointy haired MBAs treat education like a for profit enterprise, which it shouldn't be. Education funding should only be given by the state, federal and individual. Special interests need to stay out. If you think I'm wrong, just look at our congress.

            There is another factor - $$ in college are allocated disproportionately to sports programs. Just take a look at the budgets of university sports programs in comparison to other departments. That's where your tuition goes - not to the pittance salary your professor gets.

            As far as your other union related comments - I kind-of laugh and flinch at the same time. It's very vogue right now to look down on unions, to think that your "sheer skills" will somehow catapult you above all your peers, and that anyone who is in a union is a slacker.
            To some extent, this may be true. However, unions, social security, and other social programs came about because of one very important factor: greed. It's the same greed you see today in Wall Street. Prior to the advent of unions, people suffered tremendously at the hands of companies. Do your homework - read up on why they came about. Time changes little - today in the US system companies would love you to be slave labor (read: WalMart). What do you think WalMart would pay its employees if the federal or state minimum wage wasn't in effect?

            In the end, extremes encourage strife. Government, business and people need to live in constant tension, and in balance. There should always be a tug of war happening between all three, with government erring on the side of its people whenever possible.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        I don't think that the difference in payoff is the reason. Very, very few student athletes will ever end up making any notable amount of money on athletics. Many of them will make nothing, most of the rest will make some little league coaching fees and maybe a smallish athletic scholarship. Very few math students will ever make big money with math(with a fairly small number of finance types, startups that do really well, and similar being the exception); but there are a lot more solid middle/upper-middle le
        • Re:Answer: Money (Score:4, Insightful)

          by CRCulver ( 715279 ) <> on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:30PM (#25334759) Homepage
          On the other hand, people involved in high school sports who win the adoration of their peers may yet make good money because they establish very useful people skills. If you are intelligent but can't win people over at all, you aren't going to have as many job opportunities as someone who might be a bit less brainy but who is immensely charismatic. Anecdotal evidence, sure, but I've discovered in going through my high school classmates on Facebook that the supposedly brainless jocks have often become affluent, while some of the nerdiest are working crap jobs and still living at home.
          • Re:Answer: Money (Score:4, Insightful)

            by rpillala ( 583965 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @10:30PM (#25335677)

            My student athletes have people skills all up and down the spectrum. Some of them do learn valuable lessons from sports such as how to take a loss and learn from it, how to work on a team, how to lead others to pursue a goal. Others are just playing a sport so they can hit people. Or else they learn above all an us-them mentality in which they always deserve to win, regardless of which team played better. I don't think your theory is correct that playing sports corresponds to having useful people skills.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by demonlapin ( 527802 )

          Some fields are tournaments; most go home with nothing, while the extraordinary few make astoundingly large amounts of money. Some are slogs; if you put in the hours and have the basic ability, you will do reasonably well but never make the big time.

          Math is one of the latter; if you're good at it, you will have a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, but there are almost no chances to bag a multimillion-dollar payout. So is my field, medicine; there are no poor doctors, but there are vanishingly few who hav

    • by uassholes ( 1179143 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:31PM (#25334055)
      Going to Wall Street and getting rich off fucking up the world economy is always going to beat teaching math.

      Unless we bring back lynch mobs.

      Those were the days.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by demachina ( 71715 )

        I'm pretty sure much of the devastation in our economy today is directly attributable to propeller heads, math majors, who took their computers to Wall Street and thought they could rule the world's economy using math, for example by writing algorithms to assess risk of Credit Default Swaps, and to use computerized trading to keep investment banks and hedge funds with 30 to 1 leverage from imploding. They failed. Maybe teaching math isn't always a good idea :)

        You might save American education if you could

    • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

      by irtza ( 893217 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:31PM (#25334057) Homepage

      It already is; people just don't see the connection. Strength in math has done wonders for my career. It has allowed me to take on projects that would not otherwise be available to me.

      The problem is related to probability in a way. Success at sports is highly rewarded but difficult to achieve (as defined by a standard of playing in a professional league at a national level). In academics, success (attainment of a graduate degree) is easier (number of people able to reach the goal) to achieve though still a difficult task.

      What would promote "stronger" academics would be a pay grade within the academic realm for achievements.

      Also, keep in mind that the patent and copyright system were designed to do exactly what you are saying. Promotion of the arts and sciences is why people are supposed to get exclusive rights to "their" idea. It is up to them to profit from it. There is an opportunity for success, but the problem is the link between the success and the academics is missing.

      and to rile the anti-MS crowd a bit - Bill Gates is considered by many (of the non-programming crowd) to be the biggest nerd/genius in this respect. That is what a competitive academic environment would entail.

      (sorry for my over- and mis-use of parenthesis)... (actually I'm not, but thought I would appologize anyways).

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by malkavian ( 9512 )

        Sorry, I just don't get your connecting the difficulty of sport and math.
        Playing in the national league of a sport is nothing like getting your basic degree.. The basic degree says you have a good chance of trying out for your local amateur team. Getting a PHD, and tenure and research post in a good university.. Now that's playing in the national league. And it's also exceedingly hard to achieve. And carries nowhere near the kind of take home pay that a premiere league sportsman has.

        There is a pay grade

      • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) * on Friday October 10, 2008 @09:06PM (#25335049)

        Bill Gates is considered by many (of the non-programming crowd) to be the biggest nerd/genius in this respect.

        So true. Of course, to most of us real nerds the guy is one of the biggest assholes on the planet in every other respect.

    • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Interesting)

      by garett_spencley ( 193892 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:48PM (#25334223) Journal

      I think it comes down to what's fun and what attracts girls. Which are somewhat inclusive.

      If you're physically inclined you can attract a lot of attention (and thus popularity and girls) in school by becoming a star athlete. If you're not physically inclined then you can do the same by getting into the arts. Pick up an instrument, start doing drugs and attract a different kind of girl and become popular that way.

      If you go into math and science most of the girls (and the people having all of the fun) will label you a nerd and want nothing to do with you because you are associated with courses that they find hard and boring.

      I didn't know very many kids in high school who really thought about money all that much. Some of them had part time jobs to pay for their weed and dates but thinking ahead to making tons of money and being rich was something that you did via a) fun (playing sports or an instrument) and b) luck. Maybe my position is unique because I went to an arts school and played in bands but most of us figured we'd end up starving junkies trying to "make it". Money just wasn't something that we thought all that much about.

      I don't know what the answer is. You're not going to make math and science fun for people who don't like it. The real issue is that it doesn't have mass appeal. I know there's going to people (I'd be one of them) pulling their hair out and screaming "WHO SAYS MATH ISN'T FUN!?" ... but the majority of people who I know simply don't like it. And thus it's not culturally popular. Of course this doesn't answer the question of why adults and mainstream media doesn't encourage academic excellence. Only why most kids don't chose to excel at it.

    • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

      by netruner ( 588721 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:48PM (#25334237)
      For crying out loud - MAKE IT INTERESTING. I remember doing what I referred to as "Math for the sake of Math". Show how it's useful - the easiest way is through teaching Science. And separate the students that have talent from those who don't. It's not about leaving the "dumb" ones behind - having no talent in math/science doesn't make them dumb. These people probably don't care about the subjects anyway. Just don't hold back the ones who could go further.

      Do this and you will also be able to attract better teachers. I know multiple would-be teachers that won't teach because of the level of nonsense related to disruptive students that must be dealt with over and over again. Disruptive students are often ones who have become bored because they're studying things they aren't interested in.
      • by Ethanol-fueled ( 1125189 ) * on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:10PM (#25334517) Homepage Journal
        A good example calculus problem would be:

        "Johnny is staggering home from a party but has to urinate. The parabolic arc of his piss-stream can be modelled by the equation 3t-16t^2. If Johnny's weenie is three feet higher than the ground, then how far will he pee? how long will it take for his piss to hit the sidewalk? What is the velocity of his piss be when it hits the ground? "

        Make a textbook with similar examples and its 120-dollar price tag will be fully justified :)
      • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

        by EccentricAnomaly ( 451326 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:14PM (#25334595) Homepage

        Most of our country's math teachers don't understand math well enough to make it interesting. They think it is just memorizing 'math facts' and memorizing cookbook ways to solve problems. They don't see it as understanding the underlying structure of the world or as creative problem solving. They see creativity as something for writing class and understanding as something you get from reading textbooks.

      • Re:Answer: Money (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Jimmy King ( 828214 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @09:13PM (#25335117) Homepage Journal

        For crying out loud - MAKE IT INTERESTING. I remember doing what I referred to as "Math for the sake of Math". Show how it's useful - the easiest way is through teaching Science.

        At least for me, you've hit the nail on the head there. I figured this out back in high school when I had the exact same problem with math - it was math just for the sake of math. Then one day I took a physics class and I noticed something... this is the exact same math I was doing in trig and algebra 2, except it's easy now, because there are real world things for me to relate it to instead of just a bunch of numbers that someone came up with.

    • by mangu ( 126918 )

      It's not as if the media were ignorant of the trends. They have seen the future and made fun of it [].

      The current trends are worrisome, not only in the US, but in the whole world. The easiest way to become a millionaire seems to be in sports or music, and in many countries, including a large part of the USA, being a "scholar" means studying religion.

      And don't think that a long-lasting total cultural decadence cannot happen, because it has happened before [].

      This is no joke, if mankind forgets math, we will suffer

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:20PM (#25333905)

    That will just make little Johnny feel stupid! So, instead, let's just make everyone stupid and pretend they're not. In no time, we won't even know the difference. Now, where's my Brawndo?

  • Microsurvey (Score:3, Informative)

    by jadedoto ( 1242580 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:23PM (#25333945)
    For what it's worth, my mathematics professor saw this. And she polled our class this morning in lecture, seeing who was an immigrant or of immigrant parents. And most of us were. :\
    • Re:Microsurvey (Score:5, Insightful)

      by netruner ( 588721 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:55PM (#25334335)
      That's too bad - we discussed this where I work (we're all software engineers) and one guy hit it on the head: "American popular culture does not value intelligence." It values the quick wit of a one-line zinger. It values those who can intimidate others. It values quick fixes over long term solutions.

      This is a really scary conclusion to come to. Even scarier is that I don't think anyone knows what to do about it.
  • Duh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DogDude ( 805747 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:25PM (#25333971)
    I suspect there's a flaw in the US cultural system that prevents achievement on the academic front as valuable

    You think? Anybody paying any attention to the current presidential election will see the Republican Party attempting to portray education = bad, ignorant= good. (Dumb) people buy it. It's a serious cultural problem in there here United States.
  • It goes to the top (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SoundGuyNoise ( 864550 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:26PM (#25333983) Homepage
    It's unfortunate that even in politics, some group will try to say that if someone is highly educated, they are labeled as "elitist, cause they ain't like us folk."
  • Homeschooling (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ohxten ( 1248800 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:26PM (#25333985) Homepage
    • Re:Homeschooling (Score:5, Insightful)

      by WAG24601G ( 719991 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:07PM (#25334475)

      It's great that you brought up this point, however briefly. I have had a rather low opinion of home-schooling throughout most of my life. The home schoolers I knew seemed to have a rather vapid curriculum (mainly focused on passing yearly exams and requirements) in contrast to all of the cool activities I had a chance to take part in at public school (like physics & robotics clubs, advanced science & math courses, etc).

      My opinion changed dramatically when I attended a small liberal arts college with a significant proportion of home-schooled students. Many of these students had excelled well beyond high school curriculum to college-level study in the course of their home-school education. They were deeply involved in their studies, often side-by-side with parents who shared their academic interests.

      The moral of the story:
      Home-schooling is a double-edged sword. Some parents home-school because they can offer their children a richer education away from the time-wasting of the public education system, and they do so quite successfully. Other parents are home-schooling because they want to shield their children from the influences of their peers (or possibly everyone), and they generally rob their children of any education in the process. I haven't met a lot of folks in between.

  • Today???? (Score:3, Informative)

    by overshoot ( 39700 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:28PM (#25334027)

    "There is something about the culture in American society today which doesn't really seem to encourage men or women in mathematics,"

    Today? Was it ever otherwise?

    I come to this as a "child of Sputnik:" I entered elementary school in 1957, and I can tell you that the "culture of American society" as found in any public schools I ever saw never came anywhere close to encouraging academics of any sort, much less mathematics. And these were far from poor schools or inner-city, they were districts where college graduates were the majority of parents.

    I know some very sharp people from my high-school graduating class. They fall into two categories: those who were socially successful and those who made the mistake of letting other students find out that they had brains.

    Example: Lynda Carter (yes, Wonder Woman) is now known as a very sharp businesswoman. Forty years ago, she was the quintessential airhead.

  • by CannonballHead ( 842625 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:30PM (#25334047)

    Even at the college I went to, a small, private liberal arts college that highly values education, sports achievement is made more visible by school. I was a music major, and computer science major; music majors are very busy with extra-curricular activities, but there is no Music Major Academic Achievement award. On the other hand, the school honors all athletes with high GPAs, because of the difficulty in balancing sports and academics.

    I think even this trite example shows the sports-focus in a lot of schools. It's an achievement to be involved in sports on top of being a good student; it's a lesser achievement to be involved in music on top of academics.

    Fixes for this? I don't know if it's just money. I think a focus does need to come away from sports. Part of that would be money (grants/scholarships for sports), but I think part of it is a culture that values entertainment and physical activity over, well, *thinking.* Even history seems to be going out the window because of fear of being politically incorrect or offending some people group or minority. Math and science are not taught because, IMO, kids don't "like" the as much, by default, as arts or sports (this coming from a half music major, mind you). This has definite effects on "thinking." "Thinking" is NOT always fun, but I think kids need to be taught that not everything that is necessary and good is "fun."

    But that doesn't go over well in an entertainment-focused culture/society/world... nor an educational system that is more designed to please the kid than teach the kid, and more designed to push a worldview or agenda than real knowledge and the ability to think and come to conclusions based on factual knowledge, not interpreted evidence.

  • Cultural problem (Score:4, Informative)

    by wfstanle ( 1188751 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:32PM (#25334077)

    I agree, in the US, it's not "cool" to excel academically. Our society tells its young what is important by the amount of money you are paid. Look at the salaries that sport and entertainment stars get. Ask many students what they want to be and these occupations are very high (if not at the top) on the list. Until US society gets its priorities straight, we will continue to decline.

    • by Jherek Carnelian ( 831679 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:01PM (#25334397)

      Our society tells its young what is important by the amount of money you are paid. Look at the salaries that sport and entertainment stars get. Ask many students what they want to be and these occupations are very high (if not at the top) on the list.

      Or, if those students were just a little bit more numerate they would realize that for every high-paid star there are 10,000+ burger-flippers who didn't make the cut. Its a lottery mentality at its worst that they can only see the exaggerated success of that 0.01% and not the corresponding failure of the other 99.99%.

      But then, that lack of numeracy seems to be a real catch-22.

  • Recognition (Score:5, Informative)

    by N3Roaster ( 888781 ) <> on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:33PM (#25334085) Homepage Journal

    Back when I was in high school, several times each year quite a bit of time was wasted in school assemblies. These always recognized the various sports teams, even the ones that were really not that good. It wasn't until my senior year that any academic achievement was recognized at an assembly. We had two students who (one that year, one the year before) had gotten perfect scores on the SAT and the academic decathlon team brought back a trophy. The two who had gotten the perfect SAT scores later told me that they would have rather not been singled out at the assembly. Never mind students who were going to various math and science competitions and bringing back awards. Who cares about that? (Not that any of the students really cared about anything at the assemblies. All it did was shorten the classes so that nothing meaningful could be done in any of them.)

    • Recognition for passing a standardized test that the good students know is worthless is worthless recognition. Recognition for something that actually requires understanding - ah, now that's something different. The Great Egg Race (as presented by Prof. Heinz Wolff) and the school version (The Granada Power Game), TV shows like "Now Get Out Of That", and open contests like the Micromouse Tournament - these achieved a lot for various branches of engineering and material science at the height of their respect
  • This is news? (Score:4, Informative)

    by AnalogyShark ( 1317197 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:44PM (#25334189)
    As a just recently out of highschool into college student, I can tell you that anyone with a head on their shoulders has known this for awhile now. In America being smart in young culture has often led to downfalls. I know that throughout my high school career I often had to dumb myself down to fit in with my peers in my non-Advanced Placement classes. A peer who can't understand your vocabulary tends to start to shun you rather quickly.

    The main cause of all this is that academic achievement gives you no social status amongst your peers until later years in your life. Hours spent increasing your knowledge and academics are hours wasted improving your social standing, and can lead to complete cuts from social communities, ie, how 'geeks' are truly born. The sad fact is that in most young cultures the driving force are the most 'mature' (in a twisted sense of the word) ones. The ones that go out, party, and experience the darker sides of the world the fastest, are usually the ones who take up the reign as the popular crowd. And are usually the least inclined to diligent study.
  • Michael Sipser (Score:5, Interesting)

    by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @07:44PM (#25334191) Journal

    Michael Sipser is one of the most friendly mathematicians/theoretical computer scientists I've ever met. I am sure he is helping MIT's math department greatly, and maybe even the US and world.

    A long long time ago, after my funding fell through (long story), I unofficially attended a semester at MIT taking a few math and computer science classes. I cleared it with all involved, and no one really minded my sitting in, although a few people just tolerated me.

    Even though I was almost totally unofficial, Sipser took the time to meet with me and talk about my taking the class in depth. He even wound up writing me letters of recommendation for research programs and grad schools, and followed through about them! Although I "earned" the letters (I'm not bragging by any means - it was a real class, but not an excruciating one; I'm just saying that it wasn't soft-hearted charity), I didn't realize at the time just how far beyond-the-call-of-duty this kind of support was, and how fortunate I was to get that opportunity.

    If you're an MIT student, take Sipser's complexity class - it's awesome. If you're not an MIT student ... take Sipser's complexity class - it's awesome! ;-)

    It might not be a surprise then, that he has an incredibly well-written (although typo-laden) and accessible intro book on complexity theory, the standard for beginning undergrads, in addition to his papers. He really cares about his subject, and further, the teaching of that subject.

    • Differential test scores. Rating/paying schools by an absolute score just means schools get students who know the end result. Rating/paying schools by how much they've improved, relative to how much you'd expect them to improve given where they were at the start of the year, would tell you how much you've actually taught them versus expectation. Expect the results to be very different.
    • Teach maths and science as interesting subjects. People can be enthused with these, but not if they're taught as if they're dead.
    • Stream the kids by subject. I'd suggest 5 or even 7 streams, to prevent over-broad grouping. Also, don't just use absolute rate of learning. If a kid works better with the support of a peer-group, and the peer-group is in a different stream than the one the kid would otherwise be in, put the kid in the other stream or see if there's a workable compromise. Age should not be a factor - if we go by typical UK figures (and the UK has a lousy system too), there should be a Ruth Lawrence-like figure in the US each year, minimum. You can probably assume a properly-tuned system could achieve 3-4 such people a year in a country of the size of the US, and multiply up the graduates from Masters or PhD programs by a comparable factor.
    • Improve student/teacher ratios. This doesn't necessarily mean over-small classes. A couple of assistant teachers improves the ratio without dividing up the class unnecessarily.
    • DO NOT teach to the exam, teach the subject. Teaching to the exam just tells you how good students are at tests, and any student who is any good doesn't give a damn about what the exam needs you to know, they want to know what the subject requires you to know. The exam is merely a device to let you progress further or get a better job. The crap students want you to teach to the exam, because it means they don't need to understand anything, they just need to be able to recite the day after they pull an all-night crammer.
    • Teach the subjects accurately and honestly. If a book is wrong or out-of-date on a topic, don't use that book for that topic. Kids can access the Internet and if they begin to suspect they're being fed bullshit on one thing, they'll regard everything you say as probably bullshit.
    • DO NOT insist that something is beyond question unless there are sound reasons for contending that it is, and (most importantly) you're willing to present those reasons to any student that asks. Arrogance and ignorance are the hallmarks of a poor lecturer. If you don't know, don't insist.
    • Students should WANT to spend as much time out of class doing their own research as they spend in class on that subject, above and beyond the time they spend on assignments. This places two additional requirements:
      • You need to tell them HOW to do research (including how to spot bogus claims and frauds) and suggest places to look
      • They need to be given a better reason than "because I say so" to do so - such as finding something that might be otherwise utterly trivial that is fascinating to them

    This does not guarantee you'll actually get significantly better results, it merely guarantees that the more obvious bugs are fixed and that exceptional minds are not destroyed by tedium and an abusive environment. There are likely many other bugs that will prevent maximal gains.

  • I got your patch (Score:4, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <> on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:11PM (#25334539) Homepage Journal

    get involved with your kids school.

    I volunteer to coach a Lego robotics team; which was created because another volunteer did it.
    My wife volunteers for art programs, and other school activities. She thought the display case should be changed more often to reflect what's going on. She took ownership and gets it done.
    She was the president of the PTA last year. She got programs going that brought money into the treasury; which was used to by expensive things for the class rooms.

  • by EWAdams ( 953502 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:13PM (#25334573) Homepage

    It costs money and does not generate any revenue (unlike college sports, which the colleges are now so dependent on for income that not even a 12-step program could help them). It makes heroes out of kids who are good at running, jumping, and throwing and catching balls. Yeah, those are skills the world really needs.

    Put all the money spent on high school sports into hiring GOOD math and science teachers. The reason math and science teaching sucks is that really bright, charismatic people can find better-paying jobs elsewhere.

    If we ban high school sports, college recruiters will go away and college sports scholarships will dry up, because nobody will know who's good at running and jumping. The colleges will have to play with whoever turns up, like they used to in the old days. College sports will be exciting and fun again, instead of being semi-professional. In the meantime, the sports scholarship money can go to recruiting math and science whizzes, who are the people that universities are intended for in the first place -- not runners and jumpers.

    Make heroes out of the kids who win the science fair, or the ones who ace the math SATs. Load them down with scholarships. Print their pictures in the newspaper. Send 'em to meet the President. Hire hot models (male and female) to be in pictures with them to give the impression that they're sexy. The message will get out.

  • The News Is? (Score:3, Informative)

    by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:21PM (#25334661) Journal

    Both the NYT and Sipser should be ashamed for hyping such well worn material as though it were news. The only thing surprising here is that someone had the guts to publish it. Not only have we in the US known this for a long time, so have other countries and they've let us know repeatedly that they know. If I write an article that says it's possible to send voice over a wire like a talking telegraph, can I get into NYT too?

  • by non-e-moose ( 994576 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:21PM (#25334665)
    If you really think this is a problem, put your money into it. I did. So there is now an endowment for the math and sciences at my former high school. Don't whine, actually do something
  • by Captain Sarcastic ( 109765 ) * on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:48PM (#25334907)

    The story is (and how accurate this is I'm not entirely certain) that when Gauss was a child in school, he was acting up in class, and his teacher assigned him the task of adding up all of the numbers between 1 and 100. 2 minutes later, he had the answer, and he showed the teacher that he had figured that 100 + 1 = 101, 99 + 2 = 101... and thus cut it down to 50 pairs of numbers that added up to 101. He then multiplied 50 by 101 to get the answer of 5050.

    I mention this because if little Freddy Gauss had done something similarly in our current school system, he'd have gotten one of three responses from the teacher:

    1 - "Class, look at what Freddy figured out! Isn't he smart?" This bit of gushing praise would get him pegged as a "teacher's pet," and after his "not-smart" classmates managed to re-arrange his face during recess, he'd decide better than to open his mouth.

    2 - "That smart-ass attitude just earned you a trip to the principal's office!" This attitude of "you just made ME look not-smart, so you're going to pay!" will also convince him to shut up next time.

    3 - "OK. In that case, add up the numbers between 100 and 200." (Tricky one, that - it's an odd number of elements!) Freddy would be kept busy, while the teacher figured out how to contact Mr. and Mrs. Gauss and suggest that they get their holy terror signed up for advanced math.

    Would anyone care to estimate the percentage chance of each response? I'd say that no matter the school, there'd only be a 5% chance of the third option being taken... (and it's predicated on the idea that the teacher would be knowledgeable enough in math to throw a curveball like that last one).

  • by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @08:54PM (#25334955) Homepage Journal

    Year after year I, and one other kid, scored in the 99th percentile on our standardized tests. Every year when we took the "Stanford Achievement Test" we kicked ass. When we got to high school, who did the teachers praise? The dimwitted fucktards who could run fast.

    So many years later, those jocks are lucky to have a job pouring concrete and I'm a software developer. The other 99th percentile kid is the head of software development at a nearby company.


  • by hawkeyeMI ( 412577 ) <(moc.ecitkcorb) (ta) (kcorb)> on Friday October 10, 2008 @09:02PM (#25335021) Homepage
    Stop making incompetence a virtue. For reference try "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand. To flamers: Please note that I don't claim that Rand's philosophy is perfect. Her cultural critiques are, however, germane to the topic.
  • by Borg Bucolic ( 1342221 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @09:03PM (#25335031)
    As a teacher (of mathematics) I noticed long ago that most of the dislike of mathematics is related to promoting a culture of stupidity. The seeds of this idea comes from the "popular" cultural ideas that if your smart or educated, then your not "one of us". The idea is further promoted by using derogatory terms for smart people like nerd or geek. The promotion goes so far as to depict smart people (nerds or geeks) as socially inept and not hip or with-it. The reality is so far from the truth that it is incredible. In reality, smart people are more likely to have highly developed social skills along with situational adaptability skills. The ignorant wrongly believe that they can elevate themselves by attempting to lower others. However, a popular culture promoting ignorance and stupidity is only part of the issue.....

    The problems I have encountered with teaching children mathematics is that children are no longer learning skills that promote memorization and logical reasoning. Much of these problems comes from the electronic media intrusion into their lives. Children are constantly assaulted with advertisements and other errata all day long. Mentally, they have to dispose much of it to make sense of their world. Lacking the experience, they have no idea what is important to remember and what to forget. The default is to dispose of anything that does not provide instant gratification. It is a shame to have so much and to be so bored.

    The "instant gratification" and easily accessible entertainment destroys the logical reasoning learning. Children are no longer involved in hobbies or interests that require more than collecting pictures of anime characters off the web and searching for over-the-top Youtube videos.

    When you have the rich (like Paris) or well known (Brittany) acting like stoned asses (nice they may be) and getting away with it publicly, why would they be interested in anything that doesn't resemble that life. Mathematics, or even literacy, is not on their radar.

    If you don't believe me, look at some of the asinine responses previous to mine.

    And, don't even get me started on some the stupid educational ideas that are being promoted as we speak.

  • by ChrisA90278 ( 905188 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @09:15PM (#25335131)

    Don't blame teachers. Don't blame low teacher pay eaither. The reason kids don't study math is becuse they see little reason to. If they did then the kids and their parents would be willing to fund "anything".

    Why are there so few Basket weaving teachers? Simple because we all see little value in teaching basket making. If basketmaking paid $250K per year we'd see parents putting their kids in expensive private basket making schools.

    There has to be a demand for people with math skills other then as math teachers

  • The problem is... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JustNiz ( 692889 ) on Friday October 10, 2008 @10:34PM (#25335713)

    As a European who emigrated to the US, its very obvious how here in the US there is a damaging culture of PCness where it is unacceptable to speak ill or criticise anything or anyone else, no matter how bad they or it is. Consequently morbidly fat people get away with calling themselves 'large' and the bar for academic and other success is made so low that it doesn't represent any challenge just so that everyone can feel like they're a winner.
    In fact just because I'm suggesting the US isn't perfect I expect some American with mod points will exactly prove my point by modding this down as a troll, even though I'm trying to be observational and insightful.

MESSAGE ACKNOWLEDGED -- The Pershing II missiles have been launched.