Why Are We Listening to Andrew Hacker?

Published by MrHonner on

I wasn’t planning on attending the math education debate hosted by the Museum of Mathematics.  I have read, and written, enough about Andrew Hacker and his arguments for ending compulsory mathematics education that I didn’t feel it necessary.  But in the end, I decided to go.  After all, there’s something inspiring about hundreds of people attending a public debate about mathematics!

As Andrew Hacker laid out his position, he shared his one visual aid with the audience:

Hacker -- WhyPhoto Credit:  MoMath (link)

He said his argument boiled down to one question:  “Why?”  As in, “Why does every student in the country, regardless of interest, ambition, or ability, have to take a full sequence of advanced mathematics in school?”  It’s not an unreasonable question.

But for me, the real “Why?” question is this:  “Why are we listening to Andrew Hacker?”  And this question inspired my essay, “When it Comes to Math Teaching, Let’s Listen to Math Teachers“, which I wrote for Math for America’s Teacher Voices blog.  Here’s an excerpt:

Andrew Hacker isn’t an expert on mathematics. And he isn’t an expert on math teaching, either. He has every right to voice his complaints, some of which are worthy of consideration, but why has he been given such an enormous platform – high profile Op-Eds, interviews, lectures, a book deal – to address the public about how to “fix” math education?

The fact that Andrew Hacker has such an outsized and undeserved role in steering this conversation is itself one of our problems: we aren’t listening to the right people. If we are really interested in identifying and addressing the problems facing math education today, we should be listening to math teachers.

You can read the entire essay here.

I also live-tweeted the event, along with a few other attendees, using the hashtag #MoMathEdTalk.  You can find the tweets here; several interesting conversations ensued.

And for more of my writing on Andrew Hacker, you can start here.

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Categories: Teaching


ben · May 16, 2016 at 10:51 pm

Well if it’s any solace I see no evidence Hacker is having any effect on instruction so I find it hard to get too excited.

    MrHonner · May 17, 2016 at 11:45 am

    There won’t be any immediate impact on instruction. The impact will come in the form of influencing those who set agendas and make policy, who see high-profile Op-Eds and book deals as evidence of expertise. Hacker is a de facto authority on math education now. His words will have impact.

      ben · May 17, 2016 at 12:27 pm

      Anything is certainly possible. But its been 4 years since the first nytimes essay without any impact. He’s basically swimming upstream of most of the trends i.e. increase rigor, college and career readiness (ugh) etc. For the same reason I don’t see Conrad Wolfram as significant yet despite the popularity of his TED talk. I actually worry much more about folks like Jo Boaler who has managed to advance ideas I disagree with into practice.

        MrHonner · May 18, 2016 at 7:35 am

        It’s not clear that there hasn’t been any impact. My feeling is that the impact may be subtle and take time to present itself. I think Wolfram is a perfect example: you claim he hasn’t had much impact, but I disagree. I see and hear evidence of his impact on a regular, and increasing, basis: increased talk of “computational thinking”; increased talk of reducing the role of computation in school; in the “CS for All” initiative; etc.

        I’m curious to hear more about your criticisms of Boaler. I don’t know enough about Boaler’s work to be critical, apart from the obvious concerns about the faddish nature of its current prominence. But, yes, it is definitely a different, more immediate kind of impact, though it may not be as long-lasting.

          Ben · May 18, 2016 at 2:00 pm

          I hear your point abut Wolfram. I tend to see the push for more CS as an addition to the curriculum and distinct from Wolfram’s ideas about modelling and replacing the computation pieces of the curriculum. I.e. code.org and others want to add on something new to the core subjects. For me the hard line is when math classes start to shift in larger numbers. For example the experiment with integrated math in the 80-90’s is the type of change I refer to or the shifts due to the common core in topic presentation and the year they are done. I don’t see that *yet* from this school of thought. I’m certainly willing to be proven wrong.

          Leaving Hacker’s credentials and personality aside, I find his criticism of the current H.S. pathway and the push for different options to still be interesting. He may not have the right solution but I think he has identified a real problem (and he’s not the first to go down this path). Having now listened to the entire podcast I think Strogatz would agree. I’d be interested in a discrete math pathway for instance post algebra.

          re:Boaler Concretely: she played a role in removed 8th grade Algebra as an option for all of SFUSD. I find that while I agree with maybe 60% of her ideas, the other portion feels like she starts with the goal of Equity and then strains all evidence to support it. Her current use of cognitive psychology research is bizarre. So she downplays differences in current ability with talk of growth mindset. Tracking is terrible even for upper track students (without much evidence to show why). Complex Instruction must be used to be disrupt hierarchies etc. While I also worry that tracking can be misapplied and there’s reasonable research on self-esteem effects I also feel like we need to meet kids where they are at and not artificially slow down their pathways if they’re ready to move forward. There’s been a whole body of research on outcomes for compaction/acceleration showing they are effective.

            MrHonner · May 18, 2016 at 6:46 pm

            Thanks for expanding your thoughts. I’m only superficially aware of some of what you are talking about here regarding Boaler, so I appreciate getting a little more depth on the issues.

            For the record, I don’t think Wolfram is *behind* CS for All, but his ideas seem to be finding their way into it (which, frankly, is probably a good thing).

            I agree with much of what Strogatz has to say on the matter, and in particular, I appreciate that someone with actual knowledge of mathematics and math teaching is bringing them to the fore. As I mentioned in my essay, there are serious questions to be addressed here. My hope is that knowledgeable people lead the conversation on them.

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