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The Math Myth

Welcome to my (very, very occasional) series of book summaries. Our first is The Math Myth, and Other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker.

Math instruction remains a flashpoint for parents and students. The "math wars" have been ongoing for decades and continue to be trapped in an overly simplistic narrative .

In communities with high incomes, the conversation goes something like this: a well-resourced public school enacts current best practices. Parents reject best practices and advocate for "real" math - that is a traditional approach and, better yet, an accelerated traditional approach.

Parents and guardians are acting from concern for their child's future. And, to be fair, deep and comprehensive math instruction does look quite different from what most of us experienced at school. Moreover, parents are subjected to relentless marketing ie: "American students are terrible at math and if schools don't teach math the "right" way, their children will suffer life-long consequences*". With this motivation, it's no wonder parents are concerned.

But, is any of that true?


The answer? It depends. It depends on context.

If your child is in a well-resourced public school (especially in states which prioritize quality education), they are fine. In fact, they are more than fine. I describe how and why in this blog post "Mathmania" .

If your child is not is not in the above category, that requires more thought. And that's the crux of the problem. Student future success in middle- and upper-income communities is not dependent on:

  • How much math you do

  • What kind of math you do (well, this is not entirely true**)

  • How "ahead" you are in math

  • Getting all As in math

Student success is linked to family resources, and "more math" is not needed (unless your child either LOVES it, or needs extra support). Moreover, math has become an enormous money-maker for edu-businesses.

Math focused edu-businesses are quite literally profiting from your parenting anxiety.


Math Myth Summary

Hacker’s main point is that the majority of people don’t use the higher level math learned in high school. Moreover, he notes that “advanced training in mathematics does not necessarily ensure high levels of quantitative literacy (p. 169). And what we want and desperately need is quantitative literacy.

Quantitative literacy can be defined as using the right approach, at the right time, and finding the correct information needed in the context of a real-world problem. It is NOT a primary focus on arithmetic and it is NOT solving superficial word problems.***.

He explores other math myths including:

  • Tracking in math does not yield results touted by proponents (p. 152 - 158).

  • The National Merit Scholars process is also biased because the process is “mismeasuring merit” (p. 70)


Math and Educational Equity

Math instruction across the US is highly uneven. Students in communities with higher incomes fare much better. They rank among the highest countries on international tests such as PISA and TIMMS. However, most school systems do not fit this description.

A student's "success" in math has become linked to the resources of their family and their community.

  • Does it truly count as success if your student is mathematically curated?

  • Should these students receive preferential treatment over their un-curated peers?

These are not easy questions to answer and raise an ethical dilemma for parents who have the resources to boost their child up the educational ladder. However, these questions are critical considerations for students, parents, and educators working towards an equitable education.


* Consequences such as not getting into the "best" college, not getting the "best" job, etc. These ideas are explored here.

** There's a confirmation bias at work with traditional mathematics approaches. Certain kids do thrive with this approach and people point to them and say, "If child A was successful, my child will be too!". This, of course, is not true. Our current world requires skills much deeper than the traditional approach provides. It maybe that these successful students are skilled at the application of mathematical ideas without any support. In other words, they thrive despite the gaps in their out-of-school mathematics. And at any rate, kids need different things - no one solution is perfect for all.

***Most (all?) math-edu-businesses fall into this latter category.

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