C-STEMEC is a consortium of four STEM-focused
university centers in Chicago.
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On Sunday, the New York Times released the first of a series of editorials about mathematics and science education. The article highlights work done at The University of Chicago through both our support of 100Kin10 and the UChicago Urban Teacher Education Program. CEMSE at the University of Chicago is one of the core C-STEMEC partner organizations.

Some further reactions to the New York Times recommendations follow.

First, some applause. Improving mathematics and science is a priority. This improvement must occur within a system of schools, districts, standards, accountability and teachers, but within that mix, it deserves special treatment. By calling out these subject areas as special and important, the New York Times highlights the need for STEM-specific strategies to make these changes. In our series of policy papers about mathematics and STEM in Illinois, we describe more of these strategies that are well aligned with the New York Times recommendations.

Now, some quibbles.

First, the piece seems to misdiagnose the patient. American students as a whole are OK at mathematics facts and algorithms, but they’re not as good at the conceptual understanding of mathematics. In Illinois terms, we know how to move students from the “below basic” to “basic” levels on the ISAT, but moving from “basic” to “proficient”, where real conceptual understanding is required, is much harder. And of course, “as a whole” falls prey to the law of averages—the gaps in mathematics performance between students of different ethnicities and economic levels is far too big. Until there are robust tools and supports for teachers and school to reliably and routinely help students learn both the basic skills and the conceptual understanding of mathematics, offering “a greater choice between applied skills and the more typical abstract courses” won’t amount to much.

Second, the push to take “math and science out of textbooks and into [students] lives” is welcome, but there are plenty of “real world” examples that are mathematically rich but exceedingly dull—tax tables, anyone? Conversely, as Dan Meyer points out, there are lots of “fake world” examples, such as tic tac toe and Tetris, that are very motivating for students. Few likely would argue about the need to make mathematics more relevant by including more good applications. The difficulty in doing this well is that applications that are interesting aren’t always good for learning or practicing a particular concept or skill—they’re messy, which means it’s challenging to position them within an intentional instructional sequence. Discerning the sources of motivation for students is complicated, but coherent and engaging instruction—where individual lessons build on one another like chapters of a novel, where students have ownership over ideas and the evidence behind them that drive the classroom discussions, and where strong and warm rapport with adults is a given—is certainly as important.