Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doing the Right Thing

Niki Hayes, a former Washington state elementary principal wrote recently about parents who defend the "conceptual math" that is all the rage in Washington and Oregon schools. They, like the education establishment, are clueless when it comes to why kids learn math at all. If they learn what they need to learn, they would find it easy to get into any college in any field, right? Wrong!! Millions of parents in California found the hard way that the UC system, still regarded as world class, does not care much for the conceptual math. The students simply did not have the skills to pass a rudimentary math placement test. But Washington parents, even some who are close to the school establishment, defend it. How can they realize that it is not what it seems to be? That their kids are headed for a life that they may not have envisioned?

Niki wrote - "Usually the only way to change a person's opinion, even passion, is for reality to hit them hard personally." Here is some equivalent political humor, this being an election year and all, - "A Conservative is a Liberal who has been mugged."

In our case, it did hit home early. But the fun part (if you can call it that) was to watch other parents go through their own "Ouch!" moments, when reality finally bit them in the butt.

The occasion was freshman orientation for my son at Oregon State U, year 2004. I went to the 2 day event to relive my own college days. Hundreds of freshmen came to attend the event, one of a dozen or so orientations scheduled throughout the summer. The first thing everyone was asked to do was to take a math placement test. The exceptions were those who had already passed the AP Calculus exam (my son had, so he did not have to take the test). Anyway, the next day, the chief freshman counselor had a big meeting in a large auditorium, and announced that about 60% of those who took the test had placed in the beginning Algebra class, and could expect their "4 year" college diploma to take anywhere from 5 and a half to 6 years. Many placed even below that. Only a few placed into Trig and Calculus. Some parents who sat in my vicinity were visibly shell shocked. They kept repeating that something must be wrong - their son/daughter was a star math student in their school, and got all A's and B's throughout high school. A large crowd gathered around the chief counselor to complain, who was probably jaded after years of such repeated scenes. He basically said "tough luck - welcome to college". Many decided to skip majors requiring higher math altogether, and decided to go into "softer" fields such as English or Psych.

Now, my younger son did some math on a couple of scenarios. Let us take the example of a student who is brave enough to go through the 5.5 to 6 years of college. The extra cost with in-state tuition, in the most optimistic scenario, is as follows:

Direct cost: 1.5 years x $20,000 (in-state tuition plus expenses) = $30,000
Opportunity cost: 1.5 years x $60,000 (what he could have earned if graduated earlier) = $90,000
Total Cost of not placing into Freshman Calculus: $120,000 (low side)

If we take the example of those who chose the softer fields, it gets even worse. Recent data show that those with non technical degrees earn on an average $30,000 less per year. Over their life times, this adds up to over a million dollars. Now, a million dollars would at least buy a few more gallons of gas to fill up those Suburbans, wouldn't they?

When I meet people who have not had these "ouch!" moments, I recall a Winston Churchill quip - "Americans always try to do the right thing - after they have tried everything else".

I think we have tried everything else. Now, it is time to do the right thing.

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