Linus Pauling collection, Oregon State University

The Plight of High School Math Teachers

I used to be a high school math teacher, for St. Dominic Academy in Jersey City, a proud and well-run school that does right by its students.

I was a popular teacher, of geometry through calculus, also world history and an honors course, and only quit because this was my first job out of college, and I thought I heard Destiny calling on the phone.

I ended up babysitting and living on charity from my parents, before 
joining a political lobby, and then finding a place at McGraw-Hill as 
a consulting editor on math and computer literacy books. Later I became a for-hire programming consultant and made a decent living doing that.

The topic of computers in K-12 was in its infancy back then, when I worked at McGraw-Hill in Rockefeller Center, New York City. We had BASIC and LOGO, but no “free and open source”, no Linux or FreeBSD. The Apple Mac was just beginning to make waves. I would later experience these PC and FOSS revolutions up close, and always with an eye on my former calling, that of the high school math teacher.

Today, students are getting two connected messages that has to be turning their heads:

(A) everyone from the US President to Bill Gates, to Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), plus several rock, and hip hop stars, are counseling that “learning to code” is the best way to open doors of opportunity, for women especially…

and

(B) the response to this counseling is a lot of angst about how we just don’t have the computer science teachers we need to bridge this digital divide, as they’re all too successful, too busy living the good life to be teaching in high schools.

What’s left out of this message, or rather left unsaid between the lines is:

(C) high school math teachers are ill-equipped to teach computer science topics, so whatever computer science is, it must not be math.

Is that the message we want to be sending, that algorithms, spatial geometry, vector graphics, signal processing, and neural networks aren’t math?

What is it mathematics teachers actually know, if it’s not what it takes to be successful? Can’t computer programs find the roots of polynomials? Isn’t coding a Ramanujan Formula for pi at least something like math?

My conclusion: we either let the math teachers take the gloves off, and respond with innovative new curricula of their own devising, somewhat ad hoc as we haven’t time to waste, or we continue saddling them with these dinosaur computer-illiterate textbooks and watch the profession die.

Math already has a relevance problem, as spelled out in Andrew Hacker’s The Math Myth, a controversial work yet a good introduction to the front lines in this debate. To compound this relevance problem with the message that any math that is relevant belongs to a different discipline, for which a high school has no teachers, is really a death knell if left uncountered.

Rather than offer facile prescriptions, let me just say that as a former high school math teacher who later became a professional coder, these are not entirely alien-to-one-another subjects. The administrative decision to not give math teachers a fighting chance to rescue their track from obscurity is based more in computer and math illiteracy in the culture. Our politicians haven’t a clue and their decision-making shows it.

I’m hopeful that professional organizations with a mission to defend the math teaching profession will rally and advocate for the right of math teachers to innovate and “teach outside the box”.

Their credibility going forward, in the eyes of their students, critically depends on their ability to do so.

Certainly I expect civilizations outside of the Beltway to adopt this approach (e.g. Oregon). I would point to the Republic of South Africa as already taking coherent steps to overhaul its curriculum, and New Zealand. Throughout the UK, every 8th grader is at least in theory the recipient of a Microbit programmable board, starting this summer, courtesy of the BBC.

Journalists are gradually warming up to these topics and starting to ask more pertinent questions, at least in my experience. Lets do what we can to encourage more public debate of the issues.

Allowing high school mathematics to shrivel on the vine without comment would seem irresponsible, even in a culture where so many will readily confess to “hating math”.

math montage (kitchen)