Monday, February 15, 2010

PAAC, not WAC

Pre-Algebra Across the Curriculum (PAAC)
   should replace Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC)
 
   © 2010 Stephen Kent Stephenson, sks23@cornell.edu. All rights reserved.

Periodically, my department chair evaluates me as a mathematics teacher by direct observation of one of my classes and by pre- and post-observation meetings. Recently, for a pre-observation meeting, one of the forms directed me to “Bring an example of a writing assignment/research paper that you have given or will give to students to enhance literacy.” The motivation for this directive probably comes from the Writing Across the Curriculum movement.

“Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is an educational reform movement that gained momentum in the U.S. in the 1970s and has given impetus to a number of curricular innovations. It grew out of the conviction that children are capable of learning in a variety of creative ways, ways that go beyond traditional pedagogical methods of rote and lecture.” [Emphasis added; retrieved 2/13/2010 from http://www.umsl.edu/~kleinw/WAC_links.html.]

But writing is not the only alternative to rote (memorization) and lecture. The 5000+ years-old time-tested method to learn mathematics by trying to solve math problems, checking the results for accuracy and consistency, finding any errors or misconceptions, and correcting them is another, much more powerful alternative. The non-mathematics educators who created and continue to promulgate WAC for math classes are like the Pharaoh asking for an easier path, to whom Euclid responded over 2000 years ago, “There is no Royal Road to geometry." A motivation worse than misconception would be if these educators were just trying to aggrandize their own discipline. It’s clear that time spent in pursuit of writing in the math class is time lost in solving math problems and thereby learning math.

Along with mathematical concepts, western mathematicians after the Ancient Greeks and Romans developed a streamlined shorthand notation that makes posing and solving math problems much more compact and efficient than the old method of writing out the problems and solutions in language words and sentences, as did the Ancient Greeks. Indeed, the major advances in mathematics have come since the Ancient Greeks to a large measure because of the adoption of this notation and the abandonment of writing mathematics in language words. Without learning this notation and using it to solve mathematics problems, a person is not “learning” modern mathematics, and will be forever handicapped. WAC in a mathematics classroom is regression, not progress. It’s wacky! [Sorry, couldn’t resist.]

Today we are facing a crisis that will plummet the United States into a second or third tier world power with corresponding loss of standard of living and national security. Summarizing the crisis, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, September 2008 [retrieved 2/15/2010 from http://www.setda.org/web/guest/2020/stem-education] reports that:
Workforce projections for 2014 by the U.S. Department of Labor show that 15 of the 20 fastest growing occupations require significant science or mathematics training to successfully compete for a job. … However, as jobs requiring a solid background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] are growing – more students are choosing not to major in these areas.
  • Enrollment in undergraduate degree programs in computer sciences is more than 50 percent lower than it was five years ago.
  • In 2001, only 8% of all degrees awarded in the U.S. were in engineering, mathematics or the physical sciences.
  • The U.S. ranks 20th internationally based on our share of graduate degrees awarded in engineering, computer science, and mathematics.
  • By 2010, if current trends continue, more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers will be living in Asia.
[SKS: Will we look to China to develop our future Predator drones, ballistic missiles, and airport security scanners?]

If students continue to pursue degrees and careers in fields other than STEM-related areas, the U.S. will find it difficult to compete in the global economy. Further, the U.S. will not be able to meet its future workforce needs. The U.S. needs 400,000 new graduates in STEM fields by 2015. Microsoft reports that only 14% of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in Washington State have the skills that they need. Without a solid foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, students will not be qualified for many jobs in the workplace – including many jobs beyond traditional engineering or science-related jobs.
At the end of my 30 year career in industry (electrical engineering, engineering computer programming, and industrial computer sales), I noticed that employers were hiring more and more from countries outside the U.S. Heavy accents and broken English, spoken and written, were becoming common place in the office, lab, and factory floor. The hiring emphasis was obviously on technical expertise over language expertise. When I took courses at U. Mass. Lowell for my M.Ed. degree and Graduate Certificate in Mathematics for Teachers, I would frequently hear heavy accents and broken English in the halls and classrooms. Of course the city of Lowell has long been a magnet for foreign immigrants, but many of those students came from outside Lowell. I know this because I teach at Lowell High School and all the students I teach that go on to college speak American or British English with no other foreign accents. Indeed, articles like this, http://chronicle.com/article/Number-of-Foreign-Students-in/49142/, show that the recruitment of foreign students is ubiquitously desired and pursued by our institutions of higher learning. Are they having increasing trouble recruiting capable students from U.S. high schools? Reading between the lines, I think so.

In U.S. elementary and secondary education, out of touch with the reality of the workplace, with our heads in the sand, we tell our students that writing is more important than mathematics. We do it with programs like Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), where we force mathematics teachers to act like English teachers, robbing students of time to spend on math problem solving. We do it when an administrator or non-math teacher confesses to students that they, educators, are not good at math, often with a sly smile, implying that that is not only OK, but preferred.

We need to show students that our top priorities are in mathematics and science, with writing currently a secondary priority. We need to proactively and publicly eliminate Writing Across the Curriculum and other programs like it, and replace them with programs like Pre-Algebra Across the Curriculum (PAAC). The priority should be on mathematics first, before the other sciences because, as Roger Bacon said, “Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, since he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or the things of the world.” Also, many times I’ve heard science teachers lamenting that their students can't do simple math. So a math program would be a foundational aid in the study of other sciences in addition to math studies.

Under PAAC, all teachers, and administrators, would be required, for certification or re-certification, with no grandfathering, to pass a competency level test in pre-algebra at the Proficient Level (Proficient Level meaning the same as it does under the Massachusetts MCAS program, for example, including the no calculator requirements).

Teachers would be required to weave substantial pre-algebra concepts and problems into their content teaching, and would be asked by their department chairs to provide examples of such during pre-observation meetings. Administrators would evaluate teachers based on these pre-algebra examples, so they need to be proficient in pre-algebra too.

The public elimination of WAC and the implementation of PAAC would unequivocally demonstrate to our students that mathematical understanding and problem solving, the basis for other sciences, is very important; more important in their future workplace than writing, per current employment practices.

Here's a possible personal library for educators: