Fun with Numbers

Time for fun with numbers. Also, time to practice math speak and poor reasoning skills.

Assume that we take a sample of 100 students at my high school. The following statistically will likely be their future.

  1. 97 of the students will graduate, based upon the past four year trend.
  2. 67 of the students will go to college, 44 entering a four year institution and 23 entering a two year school based upon Bureau of Labor and Statistics data.
  3. Of the 44 only 26 will graduate and of the 23 only 7 will graduate (with two year degree), ever according to National Center for Education Statistics.
  4. Of the 23 that start at a two year school, only 5 will transfer to a four year school, but 4 of the 5 will graduate according to Inside Higher Education.
  5. Between two year and four year degrees, there will be 37 graduates, but 17 will be underemployed and 2 will be unemployed according to Federal Reserve research.
  6. Therefore, 18 of the 100 students who were students at my high school will finish some sort of post-secondary education and be employed in a career that requires a post-secondary education. However, that does not account for the credential inflation among those 18. Aspiring Certified Public Accountants need 5 years of college rather than 4 years, or 2 years like it was ages ago.

Why do I care about this? It is because the educational experience of these students will shape the messages they send their children. Of my grandparents generation, those going to high school in the 1920s through 1940s, only 25 to 35 percent took Algebra I and only 1 to 2 percent attempted Pre-Calculus/Trigonometry. By the late 1970s about one third of high school students would complete Algebra II as the highest math course and Pre-Calculus/Trigonometry had crept up to 10 percent. Even when I was in high school (2001 graduate), Algebra II was suggested and strongly encouraged, but not required. I was placed in the gifted track in Junior High School and my first introduction to a variable occurred in the 7th grade.

Now, Algebra II is a graduation requirement and is suggested to be taken during the junior year. Anything below an Algebra I level cannot count for high school credit. Variables and algebraic equations are now standard fair in upper elementary. I rarely encounter a parent that can help their high school student with math homework. I more often encounter a student who is helping a parent returning to school with math homework.

But inevitably, that frustrated and jaded student, will ask Mom and Dad, “Why do I have to learn math?” As the students become older and older this question is harder and harder to answer. Because of the ever increasing academic requirements most parents cannot relate to the requirements their children face. Increasingly abstract math creeps to lower grades, making math seem more and more like a subject from Hogwarts. And just like Harry Potter, abstract math can be entertaining to some, annoying and frustrating to others, and virtually worthless when it comes to paying the bills or any other “real life” scenario.

Eventually the parent, or the teacher, starts to run out of answers for the, “Why do I have to learn math?” The reply becomes, “Because you have to take math to graduate/get into college/whatever.” Remember the list at the top. Let’s reexamine it for a moment.

  1. 30 of the 100 students never attempted college, which means their children will have to take more math just to get the same high school diploma. They will tell their children that they have to learn the math to graduate.
  2. 30 of the 67 who attempted college never finished, jading them to the educational experience. They will tell their children that college isn’t worth it so don’t push yourself to try, or they might encourage their children to go to college unlike themselves and that they have to learn the math to get into college.
  3. 19 of the 37 who graduate will end up at a job that they could have had right out of high school. What kind of message do you think they will send about math
  4. Of the 18 who graduated and work in a field that requires a college degree only 4 will routinely use math at a level of Algebra I or higher. 14 of those 18 will tell their children that college is important, but the math is just something you have to do.

Only 4 of the future parents, only 4 of the current 100 students have any hope of finding the math I am trying to teach relevant. The other 96, 96% of future parents, of current students do the math because they “have to.” Sadly though, that’s what I think school is about. We tell students you “have to” take this class, you “have to” fill out this form, you “have to” wear these clothes. From where I sit it seems like society has said to schools, “You ‘have to’ create obedient students.”

We use measure success in education by numbers and awards. GPAs, ACT scores, honor roll, all these awards are supposed to measure academic achievement, but all they really measure is complacency and obedience.

Did George Orwell create public schools?


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