Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Elitism and mathematics education: Why tracking is still wrong

As I survey the many pressing issues facing US education in general and mathematics education in particular, one that never goes away is tracking (or "streaming" or whatever euphemism is being served up by its advocates these days). To me, it is anathema. Not that I see no reasons to mix things up within classrooms frequently so that there are occasionally homogeneous as well as heterogeneous groupings along various constructs, including ability, gender, ethnicity, and others). But I will never tolerate or support segregating kids all or most of the time along such lines. And therein lies an endless debate.

What is disturbing is how easily people lose sight of the deeper implications of tracking, in no small part because they have long ago lost sight of the role public education plays in forming a healthy democratic society. Without wanting to go off-track into the many social and political forces that keep that notion of school far from public consciousness and conversation, I'll merely suggest that there are a host of reasons that it's easy to forget or ignore the fundamental principles upon which both our nation and public education were founded. Or the vital importance of not seeing public schools as the tools of industry. Heretical as it might seem, it's possible to imagine a nation in which companies pay to train their workers when they hire them, and public schools do quite a number of other things, not to spite these companies, but to pursue more important goals that private companies cannot be expected to worry about very much. The problem comes when we forget that just as companies must pay for raw materials, machinery, buildings or factories, and a host of other production and operating costs, it was never a given that they should NOT have to pay for specialized training of their employees in particular skills they want them to have for doing their jobs. Once we started allowing business to dictate what the purpose of public education was, things began to go very badly indeed, in a host of ways, for the core democratic principles and values upon which the nation was based (no matter how much jingoistic, sloganeering lip-service is paid to these issues by those looking to bend our public schools to their personal profit).

In the context of the above, I wish to present my most recent response on math-teach@mathforum.org in response to a post alleging to represent my ideas about tracking and related issues in mathematics. My antagonist here, a Florida-based fellow named Robert Hansen, manages to get virtually nothing right about my views, while promulgating many he holds with which I strongly disagree.

Quoting Robert Hansen :

> I have no problem with experimentation on how to get all those kids
> that are disinterested in math, interested. I just think it should be
> labeled properly and should not affect the curriculum for the kids
> that are interested and that do get it.

Oh, please, Robert. This is such an enormous red herring that the smell of it defies description. Why is it necessary or desirable to pitch everything in such terms so that there is some sort of scarcity mentality: limited amount of mathematical knowledge available to the quicker kids, is there? Are they competing with the less quick to control what mathematics is available to them?

The fact is that what limits the mathematics ANY kid can study in school is . . . duh, all these moronic state (and soon national) "standards," the narrow vision of most schools, the narrow knowledge of most K-12 mathematics teachers, and so forth. But putting the needs of the quickest and the needs of everyone else at odds is, as usual, the wrong way to go about things. The illusion that somehow the fast ones would be best off if they were kept out of contact with everyone else so that they can get to calculus by the time they hit, what, seventh grade? is just a huge pile of baloney. It's elitist, of course, and it helps promote snooty attitudes and idiotic class notions - mathematical 'social strata,' if you will - so that everyone knows his place: gloating at the top or mucking in the trenches, as the case may be.

As opposed to, of course, a democratic approach to mathematics education that fosters notions of community. We MUST NOT have that by any means. Imagine raising a generation of kids who don't sneer at those who aren't as fast at mathematics as some of them may be. Who go on to become mathematicians, mathematics teachers, high end users who aren't automatically inclined to see anyone who doesn't as beneath contempt. Boy, would that screw things up, wouldn't it?

Imagine what sorts of people those would be. And how they might benefit by having to rub shoulders and share ideas, strategies, etc., with the hoi polloi. Must make your skin crawl. Imagine benefiting from having to explain things to peers, or occasionally learn from their "inferior" ideas. How awful.
> If this is what MG said ...
> "There is no argument whatsoever about the fact that (as Mike
> Goldenberg has observed) to learn standard formal mathematics, one
> has to DO standard formal mathematics."

[The above is quoted from a post http://mathforum.org/kb/thread.jspa?threadid=2008638&messageid=6900648#6900648 by list member G.S. Chandy in response to an earlier one of my own that may be viewed by going to http://mathforum.org/kb/thread.jspa?threadID=2006296&messageID=6899654#6899654 ]
> Then I would say we agree quite a bit.

Of course I said that, Robert, but I doubt that we agree past the surface level of my remarks.

> But I don't remember MG ever saying anything like that.

I can't be held accountable for your flawed memory or having failed to read the post to which Mr. Chandy refers, Robert.

> If I remember correctly, the last thing he said was that parents should provide an
> education for their star students outside of school, after hours or
> something like that.

Did I really? Or did I suggest that there's no limit to how far parents can choose to supplement their child's mathematics education through a host of free resources? Quite a different matter entirely, of course. Your spin is typical and of course very misleading as to my thinking. What a non-surprise.

> But I took that as just his frustration with the
> star students getting the say as to what math gets taught. A policy I
> never advocated.

I have no such frustration. You really don't understand my thinking on this at all, Robert. It's embarrassing to see you butcher it, but again, predictable. Do you really think my fondest hope is to keep an upper bound on what students get to explore? If so, you couldn't be more wrong. But I'm not going to see the majority crippled in order to ensure that a relatively small minority gets all the good resources, the best teachers, the maximum opportunities. I don't believe in meritocracy because it sooner or later comes down to the meritocracy of race, gender, social standing, and money, not necessarily in that order, of course. In the typical tracking malarkey, the whole ugly game is obvious.

That does NOT mean we need to deny brighter kids all sorts of opportunities to rise to whatever levels they wish. But always in a broader social context that considers more than simply bending to the will of their (mostly) well-to-do, more educated, more influential parents (and folks whose social agenda is, always has been, and always will be to get as much for theirs and those they see as like themselves as possible at any cost, on the backs of the poor, the socially disadvantaged, the less "in." Of course it's a balancing act, but the false dichotomy you insist upon is all about making this a contest for limited resources, the answer to which is to always separate "wheat" from "chaff" (or is it goats from sheep?)

> Although, if we only get one choice then it had better be authentic
> since it would be quite difficult to convince those that pay for the
> damn schools that it should be something less than that.

Whose "authentic," Robert? Yours? Not on my watch. Yours is way too narrow. Kirby's <http://www.4dsolutions.net/ocn/> would be far more to my liking because it's not just one choice and it isn't predicated on one group pissing on the backs of another. Everyone gets to play. Everyone gets to do WAY more than is dreamed of in your philosophy.

> I don't think that it should be just one choice, but then you have that
> tracking thing. One group of teachers turn off tracking and then
> another group want to try new things for the masses that don't get
> it. Seems to me that the two groups should work out their differences
> first on this less tracking / more filling dilemma.

Right. Accept the fact that most kids are just too bloody stupid to learn mathematics, right, Robert? Isn't that your essential truth? Isn't that the implicit truth in EVERY tracking system (regardless of the subject in question)? Isn't that the message that some of your like-minded fellow here are delivering all the time?

Come out to Detroit some time, Robert. I could show you a few things that might change your thinking a bit, but you'd need to scrape the scales off your eyes first.

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