Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.".... ...Albert Einstein.

Commentary of the Day - December 9, 2002: Mathematical Cartwheels. Guest Commentary by Felice Prager.When I was pregnant, all of the brochures, books, and movies I was exposed to showed parents and babies bonding, lovingly enjoying each moment of their shared existence. None of them showed children growing up, getting fractures, bruises, and scabs from bike accidents, or receiving unsatisfactory report cards. None of the pictures included college applications, overloaded backpacks, or parent/teacher conferences. And none of them included dealing with geometry, trigonometry, or calculus. In fact, I do believe it's part of the Hippocratic Oath that obstetricians are not permitted to utter the words geometry, trigonometry, or calculus to their patients.

So, I claim ignorance because I was not parentally prepared.

The first sign of a problem was when my younger son was coming home from school, beginning his homework upon arrival, and not getting finished until after eleven o'clock. On a nightly basis, he was getting about three hours of honors geometry/trigonometry homework. The teacher told the class that anything they had for homework might be included on a pop quiz the next day, and he told them if they were confused about the homework, they could arrive at school an hour early for extra help. When my son finally finished his math, he would start his other subjects. He was missing his karate class. He was unable to go out with his friends. The idea of fractures, bruises, and scabs from bike accidents no longer existed. Phone conversations were impossible, unless they had something to do with honors geometry/trigonometry. And he and his classmates were arriving at school an hour early almost every morning to get explanations of the problems they could not solve the night before just in case the teacher gave a pop quiz, which he had already done. Prior to the beginning of the semester, I knew my son would have a lot of work, based on his selection of courses, but I had watched my older son succeed with honors courses and knowing the ability of my younger son, I had no doubt he would as well.

However, as I remembered it, my older son never had that much homework and it seemed that the pace was a good deal slower. I should have seen the mathematical equations on the wall when my younger son came home at the end of the previous year with a huge packet of math summer homework which would be due on the first day of school. The packet included a review of algebra 1 and the first few chapters of geometry, some of it new work. (For the record, he also had summer homework in English and biology, the other two courses he decided he wanted to attempt at the honors level. I've had an ongoing beef with the school system that the amount of summer homework was insane for kids who were achievers and overachievers to begin with. There was no downtime. Kids in the regular classes had no homework. My kids looked at summer homework as punishment for being smart and working hard. These are kids who would be reading anyway, if they had time. Why ruin their summer with written assignments when they already had these kids' attention? But that's another article ......)

Within a few weeks, my son was giving up and, more importantly, hating school. He fluctuated between wanting to switch out of this accelerated course and feeling like a failure because of a decision he was being forced to make. Although he'd be extremely angry with me if he knew I was sharing this with the world, let's suffice it to say it was an emotional time. My reaction was that, having gone through this with another child and knowing the honors (weighted) grades were not even considered at our state universities, that it was my son's decision. Accelerated work was fine; not having a life was not. My husband and I reassured him that he wasn't being a quitter if he chose to leave this course for an easier one because it wasn't the difficulty. He understood the work and was grasping all of the new concepts. Unfortunately, this was after the quizzes and tests. And I couldn't point my finger at my son and accuse him of not doing the work. The problem was the amount of homework and perhaps the quality of instruction. What reconfirmed this was when my son managed to have a bit of time to hang out with his friends, we realized that none of them were doing any better than my son. In fact, the highest grade in the class was a C, and this was from someone who had already taken the course and was repeating it to obtain a higher grade.

Our son didn't want easier work, but we didn't see an alternative.

So, I called the school. My son doesn't particularly like when I interfere with his school life. He says he is old enough to handle things on his own, but he was begging me to call this time. I left a message for a guidance counselor. She forwarded my message to the head of the math department. My older son had this woman for a math teacher when he was in high school, so there was instant recognition on both parts and it wasn't a hostile conversation. What I learned was that since my older son was in her class, they had raised the standards. She said she gave an equal amount of homework. It was a requirement for honors math classes. She said an honors student must endure the rigors expected of such a program, and if my son chose to drop the course, he would never be permitted into another honors math class. Those were the rules. It was all or nothing. I reached deep within my belligerent soul, politely thanking her for her time.

However, now a new dilemma existed. If my son dropped honors geometry and went to a regular class, he'd be forced to take non-honors math throughout high school. Yet, if he continued with honors geometry, he was bound for a horrible freshman year, no social life, and a very real possibility of having his GPA lowered.

We decided to give it a few more days, but within 24 hours, when my son came home with the prospect of another evening of excessive homework, the decision was clear. I called guidance counselor, and he was moved to an average geometry class.

At first he had the equivalent of buyer's remorse. His friends who were still in the geometry/trigonometry honors class said it was getting easier. My son thought the new class he was in was too easy and he didn't know anyone. And the class was further away from his other classes, so he had to walk more between classes, forcing him to be almost late. If there were an excuse, we heard it. At the same time, he was getting his homework done early enough to see friends, talk on the phone, go to karate, and talk to his parents about things other than honors geometry/trigonometry.

Within a few weeks, there was peace. Apparently his friends and classmates, even the one whose mother was spending $40 per hour for a geometry tutor, were pulling out of the honors class for a non-honors class. The last I heard, the honors class that originally had 40 students, now has 18, if not fewer. I still don't understand the math department's agenda; I also no longer care because my son is happy. Whatever their agenda is has nothing to do with me. My son realized that his new teacher is very cool and never gives homework on weekends. But best of all, geometry, by nature, is a class for sophomores. My son is a freshman. When the teacher told my son he could sit in any free seat, a sophomore girl, who also happens to be a cheerleader, raised her hand and said, "Let him sit here, Mr. G! I can help him catch up." My son played along in spite of the fact that his honors geometry class was ahead of the new class. After all, getting help catching up by a sophomore cheerleader in a short skirt has its own value, even if it's not mathematical. Or is it?

©2002, Felice Prager

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Felice Prager is a freelance writer who publishes WRITE FUNNY at http://www.writefunny.com.The IP comments: Felice makes some good points in her commentary. While high school honors courses should be challenging, they should not be overwhelming. At the college and university level, we expect a student to spend between two and three hours on study and homework for each hour in class. Assuming, that a one semester honors math class covers roughly the same amount of material as the corresponding university class, that would translate to about nine or ten hours of homework per week for the class. It seems that things have gotten more than a bit out of hand at Felice's son's school.

The rule that a student can never return to the honors math track once he or she leaves it also strikes the IP as another element of administrative stupidity. The decision ought to be based on whether or not the student is prepared to handle the course. This can be determined by appropriate testing.