The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe."...  ...Galileo Galilei.

Commentary of the Day - January 2, 2008: No Need for Math or Science, Think Again!

Recently, the Irascible Professor has been spending a little time chatting on Gerald Bracey's "Education Disinformation and Detection Reporting Agency" (eddra) Yahoo group (  For those of you who are not familiar with Bracey, he is an unabashed and often caustic supporter of American public education.  Bracey's degrees are in psychology, but for the past decade and a half he has devoted much of his time to debunking test results and other reports that suggest that American public school students might not be learning as much or as well as some of their contemporaries in other countries.  Many of the international comparisons of educational attainment are limited in the subject matter that they cover.  However, achievement in mathematics and science seems to be a hallmark of most of the tests from which the international comparisons are derived.

Unfortunately, students from the United States, though by no means the worst in most of these international comparisons, frequently display mediocre levels of achievement.  Ideologues on the right frequently jump on these results to proclaim loudly that American public schools are largely a failure, and that we should replace them with a system of vouchers that would allow parents to send their students to private schools of their choice.  Ideologues on the left, including Bracey and many of the people who frequent the eddra group, are quick to respond that our public schools have a tougher job because we have such a diverse population compared to many of the European and Asian countries that often best us in these international comparisons.

In that regard Bracey has a good point.  The United States does have a very diverse population; and, many of our K-12 students are learning English as a second language.  That, no doubt, is a challenge for our public schools.  Bracey argues that it is external factors such as these and not the schools themselves that are to blame when our students come up short in international comparisons.  And, as Bracey points out our students on average aren't that bad.  While they don't lead the pack, they don't trail it badly either.  Most of the time our students tend to test at or slightly above the international averages.  So, our public schools must be pretty good.

The problem with this argument is that it doesn't mean that all our public schools are pretty good, only that on average they are pretty good.  The reality is that American public schools, and to some extent our private schools, vary widely in quality.  We have many public schools that are quite good, many that are excellent, and a few that are truly outstanding.  But, we also have many public schools that are out-and-out disasters, and lots that are at best mediocre.  To a large extent the quality of our public schools correlates closely with wealth.  Public schools in wealthy areas tend to be quite good, while those in poor areas tend to be well below average.  There are exceptions of course.  Some good schools are found in poor areas and some not so good schools can be found in affluent areas.  But in general the affluent have more influence than those with low incomes, and their complaints about public schools in their neighborhoods are more likely to be addressed.

What if anything does all this have to do with the teaching of math and science in our public schools.  Well it turns out that although Bracey and many of those who populate the eddra group strongly defend our public schools, they are decidedly less enthusiastic about the need for public school students to study math and science even though our public school students don't score that well in these subjects in the international comparisons.   Bracey, himself, has written articles proclaiming that there is no great need for large numbers of people with math and science backgrounds, because in reality there aren't that many jobs that require extensive use of math and science on a regular basis.  Others who frequent the eddra group are quick to point out how difficult it is for scientists, engineers, and computer specialists to find good permanent jobs where they can use the knowledge they have acquired in college and graduate school.  This situation is attributed both to the influx of highly trained foreigners on H-1B visas, particularly in computer-related jobs, who both displace American workers and depress wages; and, to the many technical jobs that have been exported to other countries where labor costs are lower.  The bottom line, as far as the eddra group is concerned, is that future job growth in the United States largely will be in low-income service jobs for which no great skill levels are needed.  They argue that there is no real need for most K-12 students to take a large number of science and math courses because they will never put that knowledge to use in their jobs.

The theme running through the discussions on the eddra group seems to be that the primary purpose of K-12 schooling is to ready students for the workforce.  And, if their positions in the workforce are going to be low-skilled service jobs, why bother encouraging them to take those "difficult" math and science classes.

The Irascible Professor takes a decidedly different view.  In his view, the primary purpose of K-12 education is to educate students to the point where they can appreciate the world around them, can take part in civic life, and can take advantage of opportunities that may come their way.  That doesn't mean that every high school student has to take geometry, algebra, and trigonometry, though those planning on a college degree certainly need at least algebra and geometry classes to be able to cope with courses they will be required to take on their way to a bachelor's degree.

And, while it may come as a surprise to many, even students who may be planning on just a year or two of community college after graduating from high school may well need some math and science courses if they want to land something more than a low-paying service job.  Yahoo posts a feature called "hotjobs", which recently listed five well-paying jobs that don't require more than two-years of education beyond high school.  Three of these five "hot jobs" -- dental hygienist, diagnostic sonographer, and forensic science technician -- require a fairly decent background in math and science.

When I mentioned this to the eddra group, Bracey was quick to reply that these positions were not going to account for all that many new jobs.  While that is probably true, a close look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Report (the eddra people love these statistical reports) that predicts job growth between 2006 and 2008 shows that the picture is not as grim as Bracey would have you believe.

As the report says: "Professional and related occupations.  This group is projected to add more jobs (5.0 million) than any other major group and to share the fastest growth rate with the services major occupational group.  BLS projects about 1.7 million new professional and related jobs in the health care and social assistance industry sector; 1.1 million in educational services, public and private; and another 1 million in professional, scientific, and technical services."

                                   Numeric change in (thousands)  percent change

Professional and related occupations (total)..........   4,970    16.7

  Health care practitioners and technical occupations.. 1,423    19.8

       Education, training, and library.................     1,265    14.0

       Computer and mathematical science........               822    24.8

       Community and social services.................          541    22.7

       Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media......    305    11.4

       Architecture and engineering....................        268    10.4

       Life, physical, and social science................      203    14.4

       Legal.................................................  145    11.8

While some of these jobs indeed will be relatively low-paid health care aids, a goodly number require much higher skill levels.  For example, close to 600,000 new registered nurses will be needed, and the number of physicians assistants is expected to grow by 27%.  Many of the other health care jobs will be in technical specialties, nearly all of which require some math and science background.

The key here, and the point which many of the eddra people miss, is that even though people in these jobs may not use math to a large extent in their daily work most of them will need to take courses in biology, chemistry, physiology, and in many cases physics to obtain certification.  Some background in mathematics beyond simple arithmetic is needed to understand the material in these courses.  And high school students who think they might be interested in the better paying health care jobs would be well advised to take math at least through second-year algebra, so that they are ready for an introductory chemistry course in either a four-year or  a community college.

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