Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Problem in High School Mathematics

Since I do not have any children, I obviously do not encounter such issues normally. However, after reading David Klein's (Dept. of Physics, Cal State University, Norridge) editorial in Am. J. Phys.[1] on the state of mathematics education funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Dept. of Education, I am completely aghast that something like this would not only have been funded, but actually get passed to be taught to our children. NO WONDER we're getting kids out of high school who are stuck in physics - their mathematics background is faulty!

What is scary is what Klein wrote here:

During the previous decade, the goal for students to achieve fluency in algebra and arithmetic was often derided by educators as “mindless symbol manipulation” or “drill and kill.” This point of view guided the creation of math textbooks. The resulting radical deemphasis of algebra and arithmetic—the prerequisite to algebra—in NSF-funded and NSF-distributed math programs has stark consequences for science education, especially physics. When the isolation of a variable in a simple equation is laborious for students rather than automatic, the depth of instruction in high school physics courses is severely limited. At the university level, students struggling with elementary algebra find themselves adrift in their calculus classes, and success thereafter in physics courses is elusive.

Many students have the perception that physics is "difficult", especially at the freshman intro level. What I find more often than not is that when they get stuck, they got stuck with the mathematics, not the physics. Yet, they don't realize that and since it was a physics problem and a physics class, it was physics that was difficult.

Why the NSF and the Dept. of Education do not look closely at how mathematics is being taught in the Europe and especially the Far East, I have no clue. It is undisputed that students in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and even China, have some of the highest mathematical knowledge and ability of any students at the same level. So what did they do? They went and reinvent the wheel!


[1] D. Klein, Am. J. Phys. v.75, p. 101 (2007)

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