31 October 2010

Why push math education onto students?

Math education is important for many reasons, but I will focus on offering an answer from a societal economic policy level that stresses employment and the labour market.  I will refrain from mentioning all the other great reasons for having a great math education for children in this post.

This all came to my mind after reading Ramanathan's article in The Washington Post.  Ramanathan is a professor emeritus of math, statistics, and computer science, at the University of Illinois.  He contends that although a lot of effort and money has been put into making math seem essential to every child's and adult's daily life, it is not, as compared to history, politics, or music. Further, the article contends that no one should feel obligated to love math, any more than anyone is obligated to love grammar, or composition.  He contends that there is no evidence that all the money spent has actually helped student math achievement.

There really are a number of different issues that Ramanathan is attacking.  They include:
  1. Should every person love math any more than grammar or whatever else that is perhaps boring and pedantic to some?
  2. Has the money spent on improving math education been spent effectively?
  3. Is math really as essential to every child's and adult's daily life as politics or history?
  4. Given the answers to the previous questions, should extra effort or money be spent into improving math education and to improve students' math achievement?

The last question is, insofar as education is publicly funded (it is, more of less, in Canada. I am aware the writer is talking about the USA), a matter of public policy.  So we have to put our public policy hat on before continuing, because it makes a difference in how the question is answered.

The difference is this: when it comes to public policy, the answer to the first three questions are irrelevant to the fourth.

Here's why.

Think of funding programs to improve math achievement through better math education as though it were a policy decision on the level of, say, funding influenza vaccinations (because it really is at the same level).  Thinking this way, does it really matter whether those getting vaccinated enjoy getting the flu shot needle?  What matters is whether more people in the community stay healthy due to the flu shot.

In deciding whether to fund the flu shot, does it really matter whether the money has been spent effectively so far? Yes, it's important to know whether it's been spent effectively, though only insofar as we may want to improve the effectiveness in the future, but it doesn't matter in deciding whether that we fund it at all or not for the good of the community!

Finally, does it matter whether those getting vaccinated feel the vaccination is as important as politics or history on a personal, individual, and isolated level?  We're talking policy-level decision making here.  That is, the funding of entire education systems and curriculum.  The salient consideration is the community, not the particular individual.  It's putting community immunity ahead of individual immunity in the case of vaccination, and that means vaccinating as many as possible whether it really improves any individual on an isolated basis.

Policy level decisions are about improving the lot of the community.  So how is funding better math education supposed to benefit the community?  By giving greater community access to engineers, who could create and maintain goods the community wants.

Ever wonder why engineers make so much money?  Why do arts, history, and philosophy majors don't, on average, make as much money as engineers do?  Snobbery aside, the real reason is simple supply and demand.

There is a great deal of demand in the market, that is by those in our community participating in the buying and selling of goods and services, for the services and products of engineers while the supply is restricted.  On the other hand, the demand for arts, history, and philosophy, in the market is low compared to the abundant supply of artists, historians, and philosophers.  It's that simple.

The very fact that engineers make so much money in comparison to other majors is a market signal that we, as a community, should produce more engineers.  If we could flood the market with two or three times as many engineers as there are now, the engineer's salary would naturally decrease.  And this is a good thing for the rest of our community (and not so good on an individual level of each engineer).

If the market for engineering services is a buyers' market rather than the current sellers' market, then everyone would be able to benefit from cheaper engineered goods.  Anything that requires an engineer would be cheaper to produce and cheaper for the consumer to buy.  Cheaper computers, software, cars, buildings, etc.

So why don't we make more engineers?  Because engineers need to know math, and not enough of our students know math well enough to become engineers!

If we, as a community, want more, better, and cheaper to produce engineered products and services, then we have to invest in better math education.  If we do not invest in better math education, then we, as a community, is saying that we do not want more, better, and cheaper to produce engineered products and services.

It's that simple.  Now I don't mean to suggest that the arts, history, or philosophy is less important than engineering.  Not at all, and in fact I think philosophy is maybe more important.  But the issue is with the community we're in today, right now, obviously values engineered goods and services more than those other types, as demonstrated simply by the market.

It's simple, but it requires that we look at the situation at a community and public policy level.  Ramanathan isn't looking broadly enough at the issue, at a policy level, for the benefit of the community.  Instead, Ramanathan opts to answer the policy level decision of whether to push especially hard to improve math education from the point of view that for most individual, isolated persons, math is unimportant.  Well, yes, but that's obviously true only because most individuals are not engineers of one kind or another!

Further, I'd imagine many engineers and scientists may be against such an investment in math education, as by expanding the engineering labour pool, it will dilute their own salary and job prospects.  The world is full of unintended consequences and conflicts of interest.

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