Friday, February 24, 2006

Larry Davis = embarrassment to Washington State

EDIT 2:47 p.m.: Added transcription and link to audio, replacing paraphrase.

Interview on NPR's "The Conversation" today: Larry Davis, Executive Director of the Washington State Board of Education, explained why he doesn't support increasing high school math requirements thusly:

Ross Reynolds: Should higher-level math requirements apply to everybody?

Larry Davis: Count me in the group that questions whether that's appropriate or not.

RR: Really? Why's that?

LD: Well, I'll use myself as an example. I'm one of those folks who just, just has total distaste for math. And in high school, nobody could answer the question, when and why am I gonna use this? And what I do for a living now, and it's what I should be doing, I crunch words for a living. I don't crunch numbers. And I, just, my case example and that's my bias, is that I don't need this higher-order math in order to do what I do. And, and it's, I don't like being told, as an individual, that I gotta take something that I question whether I'll actually need.

RR: Well, I think I felt like you did at one time, Larry Davis, but the more I got into doing journalism the more I realized that understanding the world often requires understanding math to a certain degree, particularly statistics and understanding how numbers can be used or misused. And I'm kind of surprised to hear you say that, as the Executive Director of the Washington State Board of Education. Don't, couldn't you use higher math education to not only think about words, but think about the way that education is working, but with a higher understanding of that?

LD: Um, anything is possible. I'm not gonna give you a definitive answer, because I'd have to take some higher math in order to see what the outcome of that would be on my job.

RR: Right. Larry Davis. Thanks for joining us today, I appreciate it.

LD: You're welcome, thank you.

RR: Larry Davis, Executive Director of the Washington State Board of Education.

Attention voters of Washington State: kick this empty suit out of the State Board of Ed. at the soonest opportunity. You owe it to your children.

BTW if you care to hear the whole show, which makes a pretty good case that students do need a better grasp of math, it'll be online at KUOW's website after 2:05 p.m. it's available from KUOW as an MP3. The outrageous passage above starts at 22:05 and runs till 23:30.

p.s. I also confess that I'm a little mystified at how one could even justify opposition to increasing high school math requirements from two courses to three. What, exactly, are students taking instead? In high school, I took an English course, a social studies course, a math course, and a natural science course every single year. Plus, I always had a slot or two left for electives and, er, gym. Had I not been taking those courses, I really don't know what else I would have taken. What do opponents of mathematics propose that students should be taking instead? Additional credits of gym?

p.p.s. Obviously, increasing math requirements alone won't solve the problem. It would help a little: being exposed to more hours of mathematics education marginally increases the chance that more bits of math will "click" for any given student, and therefore more students will understand a slightly larger amount of math, which is a good outcome. The problems of mathematical education, however, go much deeper than number of hours. Unfortunately, the biggest problems, in my opinion, are weak teachers and widespread cultural hostility to math, neither of which admits easy solution.


  1. I’ve tried to explain to my sister the idea of innumeracy. I told her that people in general seem to have a poor conception of magnitudes. I said, “For example, what would you say if I told you two-hundred-million people died in Europe a few decades ago in an epidemic.” Her response was, “I think I heard something about that.”

    I then made it (more) clear that I’d made it up and tried to explain to her for fifteen minutes (+/-) in as many ways as creativity allowed that not only should she have been skeptical of the claim, but known it to be outright absurd. Yet I simply couldn’t get it to click. 200,000,000 people dying to her simply had no meaning; the number had no place to connect with in her head.

    She got good grades in math (until she tried calculus) in high-school. Yet she still believes in ghosts and doesn’t understand why you should never play the lottery. However good she was at symbolic-manipulation-masturbation back in the day, it’s done little, that I can see, to help her numerical reasoning.

    I’m good at math, and I enjoy it (3 semesters of calc under my belt and a good helping of abstract math [therefore people should listen to me /joke]). I want to see folks have more ability with numbers/reasoning (hell I want to crusade for it), but I don’t think spamming them with binomial factorization and beyond is necessarily helpful (I don’t assume you’re saying this exact thing), and it’s possible that some mathematical subjects could inhibit people from learning mental habits they could otherwise acquire (I have no basis to support this).

    I’m just wondering aloud and on your blog if whatever it is we think we’re teaching people in Alegebra II couldn’t be better taught in some other context(s) (for some folks).

  2. I agree with your general point. However, your specific example seems to depend more on knowing a ballpark figure for Earth's population, and understanding that if such a large fraction died in an epidemic then it would be a world-historical event greater than the world wars. I don't see much that's particularly mathematical about either of these --- it seems more like social studies plus a little common sense to me.

    At my undergrad institution there was a required class called "quantitative reasoning" (which I exempted myself from, I don't remember how --- maybe test scores, maybe by taking other classes). This was basically a whirlwind tour of remedial math, focused on establishing basic numeracy rather than traditional math subjects per se. Since I never took the class, I don't know how well it worked. The general idea seems sound, but it seems hard to teach common sense in a classroom.

    Two courses of algebra and one of geometry might not be the right baseline math sequence. Some combination of statistics, formal logic, and maybe computation or even game theory might be better. And math, like any other subject, should always be taught using realistic concrete examples alongside the abstract concepts. So I'm all for curricular innovation and better pedagogy.

    In an ideal world, you would let a thousand flowers bloom and pick the best ones. In the real world, some school districts would respond to total freedom by watering down the requirements too much, so you end up with mandates and compromises. The Washington State House's bill (which died in the Senate) mandated two courses of algebra and one of geometry, "or their equivalents". Maybe less than perfect, but still, giving all students four years of math is better than nothing. Determined educators might have been able to argue that their innovative courses were somehow "equivalent" to the standard sequence.

  3. Hmm, and what about the good old idea of just teaching more math in each hour? I was on the "advanced" track and was bored with the pace as were many other students. It was really a "not-as-slow-as-regular-math" track. But we had the good teachers, so there was no time lost while the instructor bumbled around trying to figure out what to do.