Making Sense, Mathematically
I have to express my great disappointment with the article "Do Standards Push Yoshi to Whip Johnny in Math?" (May 21) which for a moment suggests that there is real interest in mathematics education, and then reveals otherwise, giving a botched example and a cop-out response. I do appreciate the fact that The Christian Science Monitor pays attention to educational issues. I just wish that someone who knew an epsilon of mathematics had read the article before it went to press.
I'm afraid the article sends a mixed message. On the one hand, it makes a strong case for higher and more uniform standards in mathematics education. On the other hand, it misses an opportunity to provide a concrete and meaningful example.
This country has its share of students who are talented in mathematics, as well as its share of capable and dedicated mathematics teachers. This country has a wealth of resources from which to draw in improving its efforts in mathematics education. Unfortunately, this is also a country where profound mathematical ignorance is socially acceptable. In order for the majority of students in this country to be educated in mathematics at a significantly higher level than at present, an act of collective will is required.
Whatever else can be said, mathematics does not go well with half-hearted efforts. We may say that we believe that mathematics education is important -- that having Johnny perform as well as Yoshi really is a goal worth the effort - but until there is sufficient nerve to do otherwise, we will celebrate the clueless and make little jokes about never being good in math.
It is not surprising that most American high school graduates would encounter great difficulty in tackling the problem published in the article. The solution to this problem entails a working knowledge of solid analytic geometry and the capacity to ascertain at what point a function of a single variable takes on an absolute extremum. These topics are ordinarily not even introduced to American students until a first-year, college-level course in calculus.
The emphasis of mathematics education in the United States is on algebra in high school and calculus at the collegiate level. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a serious neglect of geometry as a subject in its own right. This is lamentable since it all but ignores the pedagogical principle that "a picture is worth a thousand words." Ideas are best conveyed to, assimilated by, and retained by the vast majority of students if they are accompanied by constructive, visual reinforcement.
Americans would be better served if geometry were emphasized in high school, with algebra playing second fiddle rather than the other way around. After all, in day-to-day living, the ability to compute the square footage of one's roof or one's property is a great deal more practical than the ability to solve a quadratic equation.
Jeffrey E. Northridge
I am disappointed in your paper's decision to use such a poorly worded (and false to boot!), mathematics statement that the Monitor claims Yoshi must "know" for university admission. Yoshi doesn't "need to know" false mathematics, and Monitor readers do not need to have their intelligence insulted by an untrue mathematical statement. The Monitor should apologize to its readers for alarming them with a mathematical statement that is impossible to prove.
* Editor's Note: See today's "Math Chat" on page 12 for the answer to the math problem in "What Yoshi Needs to Know," which originally appeared May 21 on page 18.
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