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This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Chapter 8: Now we are on track

In chapter 8, nominally about Common Core, Hacker says little about how math is taught under Common Core but much about why math is taught under Common Core. He goes into the history and politics behind this program, and the goal of getting as many people as possible "college ready" while also pretending that algebra (as opposed to, say, a practical statistics course) makes one "career ready." In taking on these assumptions he tackles the biggest issue of all:  Tracking.  If you don't take a few years of algebra and related subjects in high school you are closing the door on a range from scientific and technical majors.   Even if colleges followed Hacker's suggestion and reduced the math requirements for many fields, there would still be paths that properly do require a lot of math, and by not taking the right math prerequisites in high school you are closing a door.

Hacker's response is that there is nothing wrong with tracking, that high schools that prepare most of their students for a blue collar job are doing a useful thing.  I completely agree, but I think that this issue is so fundamental to so many problems in our educational system that it needs more than just a few pages.  I do not dispute that the average person needs numeracy more than algebra, but until we confront the question of when people should confront that fork in the road and make a choice with heavy consequences, we are just dancing around the edges of the issue.  I wish that Hacker had written a book on that, not on math. That is a much bigger issue than just math education.

Also, while I think I would support more emphasis on vocational tracks for more students, I have to freely concede that there would be drawbacks to vocational tracking. Giving people the opportunity to try many things before making a major choice can be a very good thing, and tracking would mean losing that. I think those drawbacks are still worth it, or at least I think that even with the warts such a system would be better than what we currently have.  However, this is ultimately a value judgment.  We need to confront these questions and weigh the pros and cons.

Finally, I think Hacker makes one absolutely essential point: As much as we resist tracking, when we make a high school diploma contingent on algebra and geometry we are tracking some people to not attain a basic credential.  That is a real cost that a lot of people pay.  There might be fine arguments to insist on algebra anyway (personally, I think everyone should be required to try algebra), but we need to confront the bigger questions here.  This really deserves a book of its own.

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