Opinion

The numbers need to slow down

HIGHER MATH? Who needs it, and how to teach it (Shutterstock).

Some things in life – here comes the pun – just don’t add up.

This column is about higher mathematics. Oh, read it anyway!

Do you remember sitting in your algebra or geometry class being punched by polynomials, dumped on by distributive properties or irritated by irrational numbers?

Were you caught off-base by Base 8? Did the term “logarithm” sound like the noise someone would make sawing on a piece of fallen timber in the forest?

If so, you are not alone. In fact, you may be part of the biggest majority in America.

Math teachers and professors may wring their hands over why kids and adults in the U.S.A. don’t score among the leaders in testing for higher math skills. But down here, those of us with our boots on the ground know the situation is much worse than that.

The website bigthink.com reported a few years ago that 82 percent of American adults couldn’t determine the cost of carpeting when given its dimensions and the price per square yard.

It goes on to state “the vast majority of people who haven’t used an equation since their senior year or cram session in college just don’t see the value in math.” The problem  goes beyond that. At the fast food eatery, the nice girl at the counter can’t give you back the right change. The nice boy trying help his younger brother in arithmetic struggles to remember how to do long division without a calculator, or even with one.

There’s no doubt that higher math is useful in engineering, physics, computer science and other fields. But the emphasis on the arcane aspects of numbers rushes too many kids through succeeding levels of difficulty without giving them anything that clings to their memories. I passed algebra and geometry myself, and the highest level of computation I can achieve is figuring out a batting average.

This is on my mind today because the Los Angeles Times is reporting a controversy within the academic community about who should be taught what and how. One school of thought says that all high school kids should take algebra and geometry through their junior year of high school, regardless of their level of proficiency in math.

To do otherwise, runs the argument, is to create a “lower class” of math strugglers, who tend to be lower-income and minority (especially African American and Hispanic) kids. The purpose? To eliminate “systemic racism” in math.

These folks have it all wrong. They are calling the fire department when the building is already in ashes. Many children – maybe most – require in-depth and perhaps repetitive instruction in arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) to achieve true mastery and retain it.

But once a topic is “covered” we rush on to the next area, leaving more and more kids behind, which feeds the math anxiety that most of us end up feeling.

Slow down. Make sure everyone really, really gets it. And don’t assume that we all need to be best friends with commutative properties. I’m in my seventh decade, and I’m still waiting for fulfillment of that promise made by my teacher who said, “Oh, you’ll use this when you get older.”

Here’s a math problem. How much older do I need to get?

Jim Tortolano’s “Retorts” column is posted every other week, alternating with “Usually Reliable Sources.”

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