A.K. Whitney | The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/author/ak-whitney/2016-06-14T10:41:51-04:00Copyright 2022 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.tag:theatlantic.com,2016:50-485852<p>When the political scientist Andrew Hacker published <i>The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions</i> earlier this year, he didn’t break the internet. But he certainly stirred up the math establishment in arguing that anything more complicated than arithmetic is useless to most people, that requiring algebra in high school is an obstacle that drives the country’s dropout rates, and that the Common Core’s approach to math, which calls for more complex math like trigonometry, is a mistake.</p><p>As a journalist who has made math education her beat for a while now, I have been fascinated by the whole debacle, in part because many of Hacker’s arguments are more than a century old. And I sympathize with the irate mathematicians, because who likes being told their vocation is useless?</p><p>So when I found out that James Tanton—an Australian who serves as the Mathematical Association of America’s mathematician at large, and a proponent for Common Core—wanted to debate Hacker last month at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York, I had to watch.</p><p>But as I watched, I had a sinking feeling: It was clear that neither of these men had ever had the experience of being told, either directly or indirectly, that math was not for them. And I realized that, by not being told this, they had never felt compelled to steer clear of math and numbers-heavy careers, even if high-school math wasn’t fun for them either.</p><p>That’s what happened to me.</p><p>Math and I have a checkered past. I convinced myself in the sixth grade that I was awful at it because I wasn’t getting easy As anymore, and spent the rest of my school years fearing and failing it. My math phobia kept me out of the sciences and medicine, and pushed me into the humanities. I got through my initial career avoiding it, which was easy: Those in the media are a notoriously math-hating bunch. But seven years ago, I enrolled in a pre-algebra class at a community college, and eventually wound up retaking all of high-school math through calculus.</p><p>By the last class, I had come to not only appreciate math, but to also—maybe—love it. Most importantly, I realized my childhood fear—that I wasn’t capable of understanding abstract math—was unfounded.</p><p>And as I went through my community-college courses, I realized something else was a lie. I had actually been using abstract math, like algebra and geometry, all my adult life. So much for the trope that such math was useless outside the classroom; I just couldn’t see past my own bad memories.</p><p>Finally, I realized the problem had never been math, but the system, and the prejudices of the people in that system. My school years were filled with so many teachers and counselors and family members who seemed all too happy to let me think math was not for me. Reasons included that I was not a genius, and advanced math is only for geniuses; or that I should stick to writing, because most people are either word people or number people. There was also my gender, and this was a system that assumed—and continues to assume—that girls simply lack the <a href="http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2011/09/01/men-women-and-spatial-intelligence/">same spatial reasoning</a> as boys, so math is better for boys.</p><p>And so, as I watched Hacker take the podium for his opening argument, I was leery but prepared to listen. Alas, he disappointed me quickly.</p><p>While I agreed with him that for many, failing a math course can derail them from college, never mind graduation, he lost me when he insisted struggling students shouldn’t have to bother with more abstract math. The teenaged me would have rejoiced outwardly at no longer being forced to deal with functions—but inwardly, it would have been the confirmation of my groundless fears: <i>Sorry, you’re too stupid to even try this</i>.</p><p dir="ltr">I contacted him later to ask about this concern, and he wrote me the following:</p><blockquote>
<p dir="ltr">Alternative classes in quantitative reasoning can be just as rigorous. One of the many myths discussed in my book is that the standard mathematics sequence sharpens quantitative skills. Abstract algebraic and geometric reasoning don’t help you untangle the federal budget or a corporate report.</p>
</blockquote><p dir="ltr">Setting aside loftier aspirations of balancing the federal budget, or steering a corporation’s finances, it wasn’t until Algebra II that I was taught the equation for compound interest. Understanding how exponential growth works has helped me decide on everything from which credit card to choose to realizing a variable-rate mortgage is a terrible idea. I have watched friends lose their homes to such mortgages, and in too many cases, it was the math that intimidated them. But as long as Hacker’s alternate courses tackle such helpful equations, and explain the concept of exponential growth, I’m on board. How they will do this without embracing more complex algebra is a better question.</p><p>He lost me again when he discussed the gender gap. I appreciated his acknowledgement that while girls tend to do well in the classroom, they lag behind boys in the math sections of standardized exams like the SAT, and that this lag can prevent them from getting into top universities or being named as merit scholars. But that’s where his argument ended, leading me to wonder whether he truly believes girls’ test performance should be enough to discourage them from continuing with abstract math, or if he was just being provocative.</p><p dir="ltr">When I asked Hacker about this, he made it clear he was criticizing the tests, not the girls’ ability: “Standardized tests like SAT, ACT, and now the Common Core,” he said, “fail to show the true mathematical talents of girls and young women.”</p><p dir="ltr">I cannot argue with him there, but surely the simpler solution is to stop relying so much on such tests? Again, isn’t the problem the system, not the math?</p><p>But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Girls don’t need any more reasons to shun advanced math. Neither does anyone, for that matter. Hacker’s solution to repackage math and strip it of its more abstract elements, whether useful or not, will do little to ease this country’s belief in the myth that math is for geniuses. It won’t make math and STEM less elitist.</p><p>And this elitism puts guys like Tanton on the hook. I believe Tanton when he says he shuns the genius myth and says he wants to bring the joy of math to everyone. I appreciate that he is <a href="https://www.theglobalmathproject.org/">working on ways</a> to make it, as he put it to me when I contacted him later, less about “getting through a heavy curriculum and passing high-stakes tests,” and less like a boot camp.</p><p>The problem is there are too many others in the math establishment who think sink or swim is the best approach, particularly at the college level. Worse, they believe, covertly and overtly, that those who understand math look a certain way—male, white, or Asian, from a certain social class. And if an aspiring mathematician does not fit that mold, he or she had better be a genius or they’re not worth the waste of graph paper.</p><p>And that is why, for all their implementation issues, the Common Core standards should be applauded, because they say to students: I expect more. I believe you can do this. You are at least worthy of trying.</p><p dir="ltr">Again, I know Tanton, as a Common Core supporter, knows this, though his take, while realistic, is depressing: “For those that encourage and practice those awful biases you describe—I really don't think they are going to go away.”</p><p>Probably not, but that is why it is vital for Tanton and his like-minded colleagues to be even more forceful in calling them out, and to resist circling the wagons when a provocateur like Hacker pokes his head in their mathematical midst.</p><p>So, as a math-phobe-turned-math-phile, I say this to Hacker: I appreciate you for stirring things up, but I’m glad I took on the standard courses, even if I failed. And yes, failing geometry and having to retake it meant I never got into UCLA. But I did well elsewhere. And yes, I was lucky.</p><p>And to Tanton and the math establishment: Take even more time to figure out why people may be struggling, work harder to squash the harmful stereotypes about who can and can’t do math, even if there will always be holdouts, and keep reforming this broken system where far too often, the only options are sink or swim. Again, I was just lucky I was able to swim.</p><p>But as a member of the cynical media, I fear this debate will just rage for another 100 years. At least I’ll have something to write about for quite a while.</p>A.K. Whitneyhttp://www.theatlantic.com/author/ak-whitney/?utm_source=feedBrad C. Bower / APDebunking the Myths Behind ‘The Math Myth’2016-06-13T07:30:00-04:002016-06-14T10:41:51-04:00A political scientist recently argued that teaching people anything beyond arithmetic is useless, and that requiring algebra in high school drives the country’s dropout rates. Here’s why he’s wrong.tag:theatlantic.com,2016:50-478533<p dir="ltr">The small Romanian town of Busteni is known for its skiing and stunning sights. But for some, the sight of 147 teenaged girls doing math in the main hall of the town’s Sports Hall earlier this April may be even more stunning. Aren’t girls supposed to hate math? Or at least, as Barbie <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/21/business/company-news-mattel-says-it-erred-teen-talk-barbie-turns-silent-on-math.html">once told us</a>, find it “tough”?</p><p dir="ltr">Not these girls. Thirty nine teams from 39 countries, including the United States, Ecuador, Russia, and the United Kingdom, participated in this year’s European Girls Math Olympiad, up from 30 teams in 2015. This is an encouraging development, considering the week-long Olympiad, which started in 2012, was intended to encourage more girls to participate in math competitions in the first place, said Geoff Smith, the mathematics professor at the University of Bath who came up with the idea.</p><p dir="ltr">“There’s a problem in international mathematics competitions that the proportion of girls participating is very low,” Smith said, noting that it’s particularly low at world championships such as the International Math Olympiad, where only one in 10 contestants are female and many teams have no girls at all. (Last year’s Team USA, which took gold for the first time in 21 years, was all male.)</p><p dir="ltr">Smith noticed that, once China started having an annual contest only for girls in 2002, the country began adding girls to its co-ed international team. While he hesitates to say this was the direct cause, he decided it might be a good idea for European girls to have their own Olympiad, too—one whose questions would be just as challenging as those at male-dominated events.</p><p dir="ltr">But not everyone loved the idea. “Some were doubtful and suspicious, some were enthusiastic,” he said. “There are two ways to view the separate competition for girls. One is that it’s a feminist act attempting to promote opportunities for young women with a view to eventually the competition abolishing itself because it would have achieved its goals. The other is that it’s an insult to women because it says that the girls are simply not strong enough to get into the open competitions.”</p><aside dir="ltr">An article by <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/oct/13/mathematical-ratios-competition-girls-plus-or-minus">Oliver Holmes</a> in <em>The Guardian</em> last year focused on the latter view, quoting a Swedish International Olympiad female participant and female math professor in charge of Sweden’s scholastic math competitions in concluding that the Girls Olympiad is a “second-class competition.”</aside><p dir="ltr">But many women who have actually participated in the European Girls Math Olympiad disagree. Jenny Iglesias, the leading coach for this year’s Team USA, sees it as an opportunity for girls who enjoy math to not just gain vital competition experience, which increases their confidence to try other events, but also network, mingle, and “not to be the only girl in the room.” Iglesias, who is working on her math doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University, participated in the Chinese Girls Math Olympiad, and got a lot out of it, including a chance to travel.</p><p dir="ltr">But if the European Olympiad’s growing popularity is a sign that girls are, indeed, interested in math competitions, why does the gender gap remain at the International Olympiad? A <a href="http://economics.mit.edu/files/4298">2009 study</a> on gender and math competitions by the economists Glenn Ellison and Ashley Swanson found fewer American girls than boys took the <a href="http://www.maa.org/math-competitions/amc-contests/amc-1012">exams </a>needed to qualify for events like the International Olympiad. Also, the girls who did take those exams most came from small group of elite schools; the boys, meanwhile, were from all over, leading the authors to conclude that most schools are failing to encourage girls in math.</p><p dir="ltr">Only one in five test-takers who scored 100 points on American Math Contest 12, the most difficult exam, were female. Scores above that (a perfect score is 150, or 25 questions worth six points each ) showed an even bigger gap, with only one out of 10 coming from a girl. While the authors cited <a href="http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.abstract#aff-1">systemic sexism</a> and <a href="http://news.indiana.edu/releases/iu/2015/03/stereotype-threats.shtml">stereotype threat</a> as possible reasons—and rejected Larry Summers’s infamous “innate” differences argument—they refused to make any definite conclusions, saying the field needed “more study.”</p><p dir="ltr" style="text-align: center;">* * *</p><aside dir="ltr">The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s assessment, given every three years to 15-year-olds across the world, showed that in 2009 the <a href="http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/9789264095298-en/01/06/g1-06.html?contentType=%2fns%2fStatisticalPublication%2c%2fns%2fChapter&itemId=%2fcontent%2fchapter%2f9789264095250-8-en&mimeType=text%2fhtml&containerItemId=%2fcontent%2fbook%2f9789264095298-en&accessItemIds=&_csp_=aee7557210a74763e523c17dc0314adb">gender gap in math</a> favors boys overall, but that it also varies from country to country, with some, like Albania, favoring girls by more than 10 points. Sweden’s gap also favored girls, but so slightly that it may not be statistically significant. The U.S., however, regularly shows girls doing worse than boys, and in 2009 showed a 20-point gap.</aside><p dir="ltr">This, said Maria Charles, a sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara who has studied the math gender gap globally, may have a lot to do with the educational culture in the U.S., which emphasizes personal growth over practical pursuits. “One thing that changes in very affluent societies is that our understanding of the nature and purpose of careers and education changes from being more practical, an investment in material security, to self-expression,” Charles said.</p><p dir="ltr">For more than a century, the country has embraced progressive education, which encourages students to pursue their individual passions. But the general population’s <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-small-business/post/lack-of-interest-and-aptitude-keeps-students-out-of-stem-majors/2012/01/06/gIQAoDzRfP_blog.html">lack of interest in STEM, and its ingrained math phobia</a>, may be due to the fact that even before the progressives existed, this country did not have a strong math culture. The European settlers who established the first schools were far more focused on literacy for the good of one’s soul than on numeracy. Math was seen as necessary only for practical tasks, and it wouldn’t be until the 19th century that the U.S. produced its first internationally renowned mathematician—the Harvard professor Benjamin Peirce. (Speaking of Harvard: It didn’t appoint a math professor until almost a century after its founding—a professor who, perhaps tellingly, was a “<a href="http://www.math.harvard.edu/history/timeline/">confirmed drunkard</a>.”) Interest in the subject increased in the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution took hold, but it would take another century for American mathematicians to really encroach on the world stage.</p><p dir="ltr">Charles found that, when given the choice to pursue one’s educational passions, girls today in industrialized countries like the U.S. all too often rely on gender stereotypes that say math is for boys—<a href="http://www.washington.edu/news/2011/03/14/gender-stereotypes-about-math-develop-as-early-as-second-grade/">stereotypes that start as early as second grade</a>—because they are still learning about themselves . Many girls lose confidence in their math abilities <a href="https://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/Why-So-Few-Women-in-Science-Technology-Engineering-and-Mathematics.pdf">in middle school</a>.</p><p dir="ltr">“If you [ask] a young girl, ‘what do you want to do?’ most don’t know what they want to do, what they enjoy, what they’re going to be really good at,” Charles said. That makes it easy to absorb stereotypes,” according to Charles, as opposed to in poorer countries where girls are encouraged to at least try math because a STEM career pays better and will increase the family’s coffers.</p><p dir="ltr">This also appears to be the case in certain populations in the U.S. immigrants from China, India, South Korea, Japan, and Iran, to name a few, tend to encourage their girls into mathematical professions, like STEM or medicine, particularly if their children are first-generation citizens.</p><p dir="ltr">Where the U.S.’s stereotypes about girls come from, however, is interesting, because they’ve changed, even in the last 60 years. In her article, <a href="https://contexts.org/articles/what-gender-is-science/">“What Gender is Science?”</a> Charles writes that more 19th-century girls took physics, astronomy, and chemistry classes than boys, because it was good training for housework and was seen as requiring less capacity for higher reasoning than the humanities.</p><p dir="ltr">In the early 20th century, arithmetic and coding were considered menial clerical tasks, which is why so many of the “human computers” and computer coders were often female. These fields finally became male-dominated starting in the ‘50s, when they became lucrative. This makes sense, since the Space Race and the Cold War both led to a massive tech boom. Silicon Valley’s rise in the ‘70s and ‘80s further cemented the computer tech field as a brilliant boys’ club.</p><aside class="callout-placeholder" data-source="curated"></aside><p dir="ltr">But when trying to solve the math gender gap in this and other countries, it may be most useful to look at the girls who didn’t absorb the stereotypes, like Iglesias, the European Olympiad’s Team USA coach; Sherry Gong, a doctoral student at MIT who also coaches the team; and two of its competitors, Celine Liang and Demi Guo, both high-school seniors from California. All four have at least one parent who works in a STEM or medical field. And all four say they were encouraged by teachers, at different school levels, to pursue math competitions. These factors <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/pubs97/97982.pdf">have been shown</a> to make a difference when it comes to encouraging students to pursue STEM.</p><p dir="ltr">And then there’s self-confidence. “It would be a little disappointing when you can’t do a problem, but don’t be discouraged if you can’t do a problem,” Liang said, directing her advice at middle-schoolers.</p><p dir="ltr">But confidence can waver even in the most dedicated. Gong, who in 2007 was the second American girl in International Math Olympiad history to get the gold medal, recalled getting a pep talk during a competition from her coach, Melanie Wood (who was the first American girl to ever get on Team USA). “I thought I was doing really badly, but ... she said girls tend to underestimate how well they are doing,” Gong said.</p><p dir="ltr">And while current participants hope the U.S. team will continue competing in the European Girls Math Olympiad for years to come, these young mathematicians aren’t dismayed by the thought of a future where it isn’t needed.</p><p>“It’s a good thing to have a chance for more girls,” Guo said. “It’s necessary for now because there aren’t other alternatives.”</p>A.K. Whitneyhttp://www.theatlantic.com/author/ak-whitney/?utm_source=feedBeawiharta Beawiharta / ReutersStudents work on their math during a class conducted under a makeshift tent in Indonesia.Math for Girls, Math for Boys 2016-04-18T09:30:00-04:002016-04-18T09:30:27-04:00Why don’t females compete in international math olympiads at the same rate as their male classmates?tag:theatlantic.com,2016:50-429231<p dir="ltr"><span><span>The Common Core math standards have been contentious since they were launched several years ago, with many parents taking to social media to complain about their kids getting incomprehensible homework. Kids are now expected, for example, to explain how multiplication works using the “box” and “lattice” methods. These methods take longer, and are harder to master at first, but have been shown by some research to be more effective than the multiply-and-carry method, particularly for kids who have trouble memorizing things. And while they may be new for this generation of parents, they have </span><a href="http://ualr.edu/lasmoller/medievalmult.html"><span>been around since at least the 13th century</span></a><span>. </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>The research and philosophy behind the new math standards aren’t new either: They mirror the ideas espoused by the Mathematical Association of America’s National Committee on Mathematical Requirements, which formed in 1916 and put together a plan to reform math education in the United States. Until then, math education consisted of few attempts at helping students reach a deeper understanding. One impetus for reform was that, while the country had become a leader in technological and industrial innovation in the early 20th century, and while more students were taking algebra and geometry than before, many of its schools had yet to be as sophisticated or academically rigorous as those in Europe. </span></span></p><!-- START "MORE ON" LIST BOX v. 3 --><!-- START "MORE ON" LIST BOX v. 3 --><aside class="callout-placeholder" data-source="curated"></aside><!-- END "MORE ON" LIST BOX v. 3 --><!-- END "MORE ON" LIST BOX v. 3 --><p dir="ltr"><span><span>The suggestions contained in the committee’s 600-page-plus report, “<a href="http://www.mathcurriculumcenter.org/PDFS/CCM/originals/reorg_of_math_report.pdf">The Reorganization of Mathematics in Secondary Education</a>,” should be familiar to anyone who has pored over the Common Core standards. They encouraged the teaching of algebra concepts as early as the sixth grade. They promoted understanding over rote memorization using practical math applications. They stressed the importance of a solid math education—including in areas like geometry and even trigonometry—for all students, whether they go into engineering or philosophy, college or the workforce. </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span>One of the primary purposes of math education, the authors stated, was “to develop those habits of thought and of action which will make these powers effective in the life of the individual.” <span>But no matter how exhaustive, the report did not bring about the changes for which the committee had hoped. </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>That initiative gave way to the increasingly popular progressive education-reform movement, which preached that a deeper understanding of math wasn’t practical for most Americans—that the way it was taught didn’t take into account their interests and thus squashed their will to learn. Less math is more, the thinking went. Because this movement won, instead of raising the numeracy of the general public and ensuring it was better equipped to navigate the increasingly sophisticated technology and global economy, American schools allowed an entire generation of students to fall behind mathematically. Because it usually only takes one generation to erase the gains of the previous one, Baby Boomers, Xers, and older Millennials are still nowhere near as numerate as they should be.</span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>And while many helped make this happen, a lot of the blame lies with one well-meaning, extremely influential educator: William Heard Kilpatrick, Columbia University Teachers College’s “million-dollar professor.” </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>Kilpatrick (who earned his moniker not for his salary but because his packed lectures swelled Columbia’s coffers), had a lot of cult-leader-esque charisma. “At times there did seem to be a mysterious and unexplainable ambience surrounding Kilpatrick as he taught,” writes Kilpatrick’s biographer, the professor and historian John Beineke, in </span><em><a href="http://www.amazon.com/And-there-were-giants-land/dp/0820437735"><span>And there were giants in this land: The Life of William Heard Kilpatrick</span></a></em><span>. “He would teach classes at Teachers College with 500 or 600 students in an auditorium, and individuals would speak of feeling as though they were the only ones in the room.” This may explain why, when Kilpatrick told his adoring crowds that “we have in the past taught algebra and geometry to too many, not too few,” they took him seriously. Kilpatrick believed that anything beyond arithmetic was useless to most of the population. He even worried that the instruction of complex math was harmful to everyday living.</span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>He didn’t always feel that way, having studied math at Mercer and Johns Hopkins universities and spending the earlier part of his life as a primary- and secondary-school math teacher and math professor. What made him turn against the subject? Blame a heady mix of social science, including Darwinism and psychology, and a clear distaste for authority of any kind.</span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>Kilpatrick was born in 1871 in White Plains, Georgia, to a Baptist preacher with enough charisma of his own to become one of the state’s most prominent religious leaders. Kilpatrick rejected his father’s faith as a teen, chose a career in math and science, and soon became a professor at his undergraduate alma mater. But academia would offer no respite from religion: In 1906, he was accused of heresy for refusing to affirm his belief in the Virgin Birth, and resigned from Mercer in disgrace. </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>A year after that, he enrolled as a grad student at Teachers College. The best way to describe how much influence the school had on American education at the time would be to compare education with a major religion, and Teachers College with that religion’s holy city. As Beineke put it, Teachers College, which was established, “had become, even before its 25th anniversary, a Mecca for the study of education.” It was the first academic institution to effectively turn teaching into a profession, and soon after its founding in 1887 attracted the most influential pedagogues of the day. Its faculty included John Dewey, the pioneer of the progressive-education movement, whose mantra espoused “child-led learning,” in which the student, not the teacher, decides what should be learned. In progressive schools, teachers were no longer implacable authority figures, but gentle guides and partners in education. </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>Kilpatrick soon became Dewey’s closest protege, and as he got deeper and deeper into the progressive philosophy, he set his sights on reforming math education, making it less about building the intellect and more about whether it was needed for everyday living. The best way to do this, he decided, was to also tap into the burgeoning social-efficiency movement endorsed by several colleagues at Teachers College, including Dewey and the psychologist Edward Thorndike. Social-efficiency proponents believed that universal education was a flawed approach in schools because different populations had different needs and intelligence levels.</span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>By 1915, Kilpatrick wielded such influence in education circles that he was asked to head a National Education Association committee tasked by the U.S. Bureau of Education with devising ways to reform math instruction. Its 1920 report, “<a href="https://archive.org/details/problemofmathema00natirich">The Problem of Mathematics in Secondary Education</a>,” became part of a larger treatise on public education that provided a roadmap for America’s schools for decades to come. </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>Like the MAA’s report, “Problem of Mathematics” encouraged basic algebraic concepts in junior high school and the importance of practical math. But that’s about all the two have in common. The former, which was far more lightweight, stated algebra, geometry, and any higher math was a waste of time for most students. Advanced math, it posited, wasn’t critical for understanding greater life lessons. Such an idea is conservative, it argued: </span></span></p><blockquote>
<p dir="ltr"><span><span>To the extremist of this school the “faculty of reasoning,” for example, could be trained on any material where reasoning was involved (the more evident the reasoning, the better the training), and any facility of reasoning gained in that particular activity, could, it was thought, be accordingly directed at will with little loss of effectiveness to any other situation where good reasoning was desired. In probably no study did this older doctrine of “mental discipline” find larger scope than in mathematics, in arithmetic to an appreciable extent, more in algebra, most of all in geometry.</span></span></p>
</blockquote><p dir="ltr"><span><span>The authors’ rejection of math as critical for overall problem-solving ability was based largely on research by Thorndike, the education psychologist, who earlier in the century had conducted a lot of experiments on cats to gauge how animals learn. He would lock cats in rigged boxes, then see if they could figure out how to step on the right lever to get out, and, if they could, if they could do it again and how quickly. Subsequent studies on soldiers during World War I showed that humans, like cats, don’t necessarily improve their ability to solve a problem just because they’ve previously solved lots of problems. The studies suggested that problems are only easier for the soldiers the subsequent time if they’re very similar to problems the soldiers previously solved. </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>Relying on Thorndike’s findings, the report’s authors warned high schools against offering advanced math to students who didn’t demonstrate great interest or obvious talent in the subject or who didn’t intend to go into engineering or hard science (these students being invariably female). They concluded that there should even be restrictions for the engineers, too; the country’s future bridge or machine designers didn’t need to waste time on math that was too theoretical. The remaining students were essentially limited to arithmetic (although some more-advanced math was suggested for trades such as machinery and plumbing).</span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>While the “Problem of Mathematics” report itself was likely not as influential as the men behind it, what happened in the next two decades is noteworthy. According to the 1970 text </span><em><span>Mathematics in the Evolving Schools: A History of Mathematics Education in the United States</span></em><span>, the number of students taking algebra and geometry dropped despite growth in high-school enrollment overall. In 1922, 40 percent of American students were taking algebra, and 23 percent were taking geometry. By 1934, the rates had dropped to 30 percent and 17 percent, respectively. </span></span><span><span>When the United States entered WWII, the military reportedly had to offer enlisted men and officers in all military branches remedial math classes</span><a href="http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED432468.pdf"><span> so they could fulfill their duties</span></a><span>; many were struggling with tasks as basic as bookkeeping. </span></span></p><p dir="ltr"><span><span>Kilpatrick died at the age of 93 in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon—a feat that relied in part on a good understanding of algebra and geometry. Although his movement’s ideas about math had largely fallen out of favor by then, those belonging to the other camp—the one that espoused deeper understanding—didn’t quite catch on either. Many, if not most, of the country’s schools reverted back to teaching math the way it was taught at the beginning of the century. It wasn’t until a half century later that the opponents’ ideas began to gain traction nationwide, and whether or not they stick is far from clear. In the end, it may all come down to how many parents complain about it on Twitter. </span></span></p>A.K. Whitneyhttp://www.theatlantic.com/author/ak-whitney/?utm_source=feedVitaly Korovin / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The AtlanticThe Man Who Tried to Kill Math in America2016-01-27T09:30:00-05:002016-01-27T11:16:53-05:00<span>One educator’s reform efforts in the early 20<sup>th</sup> century say a lot about current attacks on the Common Core.</span>