I visited a Swatch store last week. I was at a train station, heading home from a trip, looking for gifts for my children. I decided it was a good time to buy my two toddlers their first watches.
After selecting a gold-faced timepiece with a dinosaur wristband for my son and a Rapunzel watch with pink and purple hands for my daughter—I stepped up to the counter. Tucking my purchases into their bags, the salesman commented on the fact that I’d not selected watches with digital displays. Sure, I said, I want to teach my kids how to tell time.
He explained that an increasing number of customers have been asking for digital watches. Swatch is of course known for taking the traditional, round watch and interpreting it in beautifully hip, colorful ways. The Swiss company offers a seemingly endless variety of designs—in neon, metallic, with pop culture references, or rather plain. Some display the hour or even minute numbers, while others have completely blank faces or little slashes called “tick marks,” as the salesman explained.
I asked what he does when a customer wants a digital watch. He asks them why, and when the answer is that they cannot tell time, he tries to teach them how. He says that he’s rarely successful. And that he typically ends up selling them one of the handful of digital watches that Swatch now sells.
Since I was returning from a professional development workshop on mathematics, I could not help but spend the cab ride home reflecting on what the salesman’s story said about these customers’ lack of understanding of mathematics.
Now telling time is not doing math. But it does require knowledge of math fundamentals. You cannot tell time on a traditional clock without knowing that numbers are symbols that represent units, or without some basic grasp of estimation and ratios. In other words, if you cannot tell time, it most likely means that you would still struggle with third and fourth-grade math concepts.
This watch salesman’s experience made me think more about a New York Times op-ed I and countless others read last week by Queens College political scientist Andrew Hacker. Hacker argued that it is not just wrong but unfair of our high schools and colleges to assume that all students should understand Algebra. He claims that the math demands in our schools are responsible for upping dropout rates and pose a barrier to college attendance. Hacker’s op-ed attracted 477 comments in 48 hours—nearly all of them critical.
Hacker isn’t the first and won’t be the last to make the untenable argument that teaching less math is what American students need. This way of thinking, that we need to be creating “escape routes” for underachieving students, is becoming the new mantra. It is the 2.0 version of what President Bush rightfully called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And it crops up not only in discussions of math but in talk about how the entire latter half of high school might be repurposed for career-bound students. This is pernicious. Before we know it we will be hearing people propose “escape routes” out of middle school, too.
With regard to mathematics, the problem is not that we are teaching too much of it—but that we are teaching math ineffectively. The expectations and architecture of the new Common Core State Standards in Mathematics can help to remedy this. Faithful implementation of those standards will support districts that want to adopt curricula that unfurl mathematics in a rational, coherent program and that jettison approaches that are illogically sequenced and that overuse and abuse manipulatives.
As mathematician Scott Baldridge, the leader of Common Core’s own curriculum mapping project in mathematics, has said: “Teachers are starving for rational approaches to teaching mathematics.” So let’s stop talking, like Hacker does, as though the best we can do is to find ways to manage our failure. Instead, let’s give teachers the quality curriculum materials and content-rich training they need to effectively teach students Algebra and much, much more.