Barbie and Jim Brady agree: Math is hard

Aug 24, 2011 by

By Laurie H. Rogers

Omigod! I’m so happy. The mystery is solved. I can finally go back to the peaceful life I left in 2007 when I first realized that Spokane has a serious math problem. Last week, I arrived home from Canada, to multiple emails and phone calls suggesting that I read the Aug. 14 Spokesman-Review article on college math remedial rates. Ever the accommodating advocate, I did, and now I know the truth.

The reason we’re staring at an entire generation of students who lack basic math skills is that math is hard. No, no, it’s true. Jim Brady, from Spokane Falls Community College, reportedly told SR reporter Jody Lawrence-Turner that math is hard, and Lawrence-Turner must not have been able to locate a credible contrary view – anywhere in the country. Plus, Jim Brady is dean of Computing, Math and Science at SFCC. He’s in charge over there, so his opinion must be right.

How easy and obvious. And only three syllables. My world has been magically simplified. I feel a bit silly, though, having completely missed this for four and a half years. I never thought math is hard – certainly not basic math. I thought the district makes math hard – impossible, actually – then turns around and blames everyone else. I’ve argued that for years, to little effect at the central office and school board, and to nearly dead silence at the newspaper. Now I see why they view me with such disdain. I was wrong; why bother talking with someone who’s wrong?

Math is hard. No wonder no one wants to hold the district accountable for the area’s low pass rates on state math tests, high college remedial rates, low levels of math skills in graduates, and high levels of math anxiety across the entire city. If math is hard, that would be totally unfair.

The advocates I know across the country will be relieved to know the problem is solved and we can return to our families. They’ll feel sheepish knowing how wrong we were – about math, about the problem, and about the solution. Indeed, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland says, we’ve been “wrong from beginning to end,” and you can’t be more wrong than that.

It turns out that the math problem isn’t the awful curriculum, distracting learning environment, excessive constructivism, or administrative micromanaging, as we advocates have been saying. Those issues – and the scientifically conducted research on those issues – weren’t mentioned in the newspaper’s Aug. 14 article. They weren’t important enough for the newspaper to examine them at all over the last several years.

The problem isn’t ineffective teachers, as the Spokane superintendent is always saying. It isn’t poverty, as instructional coaches shouted out earlier this year in my community forums. It isn’t a lack of patience on the part of parents, as district administrators frequently interrupted us to claim. It isn’t a money issue (so adding more dollars to the budget won’t fix it). It isn’t too much local decision-making (so a federal takeover of public education won’t fix it). It isn’t due to weak standards, unmotivated children or uninvolved parents. And it isn’t a data problem (so a new $4 million data system won’t fix it). We advocates always knew all of that.

But now we know that math is too hard. We must therefore stop expecting things from the leadership. It isn’t fair to be angry about a failed K-12 math program or a failed college remedial math program, not fair to hold Jim Brady or the superintendent accountable for failing to accomplish something that’s obviously impossible. Now we can understand why Mr. Brady and his SFCC colleagues chose recently to align the SFCC math program with Spokane’s failed K-12 math program so that everyone can feel great about math. All of SFCC’s remedial math students will be able to continue scaffolding their prior knowledge in order to achieve group consensus on reaching an equitable and socially just number and level of advanced skills, self-constructed in a metacognitive and collaborative stream of child-centered, deeper conceptual, problem-solving alignment.

What a relief. We no longer need to wonder about those privately schooled, homeschooled, and tutored students who do achieve in math, who don’t test into remedial math in college, and who don’t believe that math is hard. They must be anomalies. Perhaps they’re gifted, weird, bionic, or maybe not even real. Honestly, we can’t expect all of the children to be bionic or not real.

Besides, there are more important things in life than math. Things like shopping and movies, taking showers, making a perfect soufflé like Gordon Ramsay on TV, and monitoring one’s horoscope. And there are tons of jobs our graduates can get that don’t require math, like answering the phone, sweeping the floor, and cleaning swimming pools. People also could babysit, mix drinks or lifeguard. There are lots and lots of non-math jobs out there. Lots.

I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders, like I just ate a cream puff or a sugary confection. There’s a humming in my ears and I feel a bit lightheaded. I hear Barbie in the background, burbling “Math is too hard” each time someone pulls on the string. How funny and cool that she’s back with us. She really was way ahead of her time.

I did – just for a second – see a small dark shadow out there – insignificant really, what looked like hordes of foreign students pouring across the border to nab seats in our colleges, take jobs in our businesses, and drag American jobs overseas, never to be seen again – but that must have been the sugar rush one gets from eating a Twinkie or reading the local newspaper.

At last I get it. Jim Brady says math has been hard for decades, and I believe him. It’s of no consequence that America’s public schools have depended on the current version of reform math for 22 years now, and on other incarnations of reform math off and on for generations before that. Why make this complicated? Why persist in wrong-headed thinking? Why be antagonistic and difficult, or risk being labeled a nutjob, whacko or conspiracy theorist? Why make everyone feel so awful? Let’s be happy.

I’m sure grammar is too hard, too. The district wisely chose to channel its resources away from grammar to more important things like equity and social justice. Cursive writing also is hard, and history is hard (too many numbers) – and civics. Who can even keep straight all of those branches of government? Especially nowadays.

You know what? The whole damn thing is too hard. I mean really. It’s time to face facts. They can’t teach our children because it can’t be done.

And with this simple concept, pioneered by Barbie, confirmed by Jim Brady, voted on by the school board, implemented by the district, and delivered solemnly to us by The Spokesman-Review, we could reform and transform our entire society.

Numbers in general are hard, don’t you think? All of those pointy edges. You have to add them and subtract them and … what’s that other one?… I’m getting a headache already, just thinking about it. And why should we? They’re all on the Internet. We can find them if we need them. Like, there’s a 3 and a 7 and a 5. And another one – I forget it, exactly, but it has a circle on top of another circle, like glasses, except sideways and with no arms. I think that’s all of them.

Now I can go back to more important business, like figuring out why so few graduates can get into college or get a job. It’s a national problem. I think Jim Brady should run the Federal Reserve. Math is hard there, too. It’s also hard in Congress, where they have so many zeroes. Let’s all take a break from math, take a nap and not worry about it. Someone will do it for us. Like WALL-E. He’ll do it. I love that little guy. The space dancing in WALL-E was so cute, and I’m glad he lived.

I’m hoping that Barbie, Jim Brady and the newspaper will confirm that weeding the garden is hard. I could really get behind them on that one. Also cleaning. And driving. And walking. And thinking. I’ve been doing way too much thinking.

Surprise me, Mr. Brady. Your comments have been a true gift. Give me more. I think my birthday is coming up soon.

Laurie H. Rogers Member of the executive committee for Where’s the Math? and Author of “Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about it,” and author of the blog “Betrayed” –

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