Freakonomics misunderstands what public education is, how it works, and how to change it

November 4, 2019 at 7:00 am 9 comments

I am a fan of Freakonomics Radio. I have heard all the old ones (some more than once), and I keep up with the new ones. Freakonomics informs and inspires me, including many posts in this blog. So, I want to respond when they get it really wrong.

Episode 391 America’s Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up (see link here) is hosted by Steven Levitt (the economist) rather than the usual host Stephen Dubner (the journalist). The podcast is inspired by the struggles Levitt’s teenage children face with their mathematics classes. Levitt contends that the US mathematics curriculum is out-dated and in serious need of reform. I agree with his premise. His interviews with Jo Boaler and Sally Sadoff are interesting and worth listening to. But there are huge holes in his argument, and his solution makes no sense at all.

Part of his argument is based on a poll they took through the Freakonomics twitter account.

MARTSCHENKO: So, we’ve been putting together a survey that we sent out to Freakonomics listeners. We asked our survey respondents which subjects they use in their daily life, traditional math and data-related. So trigonometry, geometry, calculus, versus more data-related skills like analyzing and interpreting data and visualizing it.

LEVITT: So what percent of people, say, use calculus on a daily basis?

MARTSCHENKO: About 2 percent said that they use calculus on a daily basis, and almost 80 percent say they never use it.

LEVITT: Okay. I would think calculus would get used more than trigonometry and geometry, although that would be hard if only 2 percent are using it. But what percent use trigonometry and geometry?

MARTSCHENKO: Yeah. Less than 2 percent of respondents said that they use trigonometry in their daily life, but over 70 percent of them said that they never use it.

LEVITT: And how about geometry?

MARTSCHENKO: Geometry was a little bit better. There were about 4 percent of respondents who said that they use geometry daily, but again, over 50 percent said that they never use it.

LEVITT: So it’s a pretty sad day when we’re celebrating the use of geometry because 4 percent of the people report using it.

I don’t dispute his results. Even engineers don’t use geometry or trigonometry every day, but they have to learn it. We don’t only teach subjects that people use on a daily basis. I don’t think about the American Revolution or the three branches of the US government every day, but it’s important for American citizens to know how their country came to be and how it’s structured. We hope that every voter knows the roles that they’re voting for, though they may not think about them daily.

One of the reasons we teach what we do is to provide the tools to learn other important things. Engineers and scientists have to know geometry and trigonometry to do what they do. We could wait until undergrad to teach geometry, trig, and calc — but that’s pretty late. There’s an argument that we should tell students what science and engineering is really about (and show them the real math), both to encourage them and to fully inform them.

The Freakonomics on-line survey misunderstands why we teach what we teach. It’s not just about everyday. It’s also about the things that every student will need someday (like understanding how impeachment works) and about the things that might inspire them to think about a future day when they are people who use calculus and trigonometry.

The moment that made me exclaim out loud while listening to the podcast was in the interview with David Coleman, CEO of the College Board. Levitt wants to replace some (all?) of the high school mathematics curriculum with a focus on data science. That’s an interesting proposal worth exploring. Levitt makes an important point — how do we teach teachers about data science?

Levitt: But will teachers in AP Biology or AP Government have the skills to teach the data-fluency parts of their courses?

COLEMAN: One magnificent thing about teaching is, it’s often the most lively when the teacher himself or herself is learning something. I think the model of practiced expertise being the only way that teaching is exciting is false.

I think what’s more interesting is, can we create environments for teachers and students where together the data comes alive and fascinates them. The question is not to try to suddenly retrain the American teaching force to be data analysts, but instead design superb data experiences, superb courses, where the hunt for data and the experimentation is so lively that it excites them as well as their students. And then they together might be surprised at the outcomes.

I know of no data that says that a teacher’s “surprise” leads to better learning outcomes than a teacher who has significant content knowledge. Much the opposite — the evidence I know suggests that teachers only learn pedagogical content knowledge (how to teach the subject matter) when they develop sufficient expertise in the content area. Learning outcomes are improved by teachers knowing the content and how to teach it. The idea that classes are somehow better (more “lively”) when the teacher doesn’t know what’s going to happen makes no sense to me at all.

Finally, Levitt’s solution to reforming the mathematics curriculum is for all of us to sign a petition, because (he argues) there are only six to ten people in each state that we have to convince in order to reform each state’s mathematics curriculum.

LEVITT: So tell me, who makes the decisions? How does curriculum get set in the U.S., in education systems?

MARTSCHENKO: In public education, the people with power are those on the state boards of education. So each state will have a state board of education. There are typically six to 10 people on the board, and they’re the ones who make those decisions about the curriculum, what gets taught, how testing is done.

LEVITT: So literally this set of six to 10 people have the power to set the guidelines, say, for whether or not data courses are required.

MARTSCHENKO: That’s correct.

LEVITT: So what you’re implying is that each state sets its own standards. Okay, so there are these state boards of education who have all the power, it seems to me what you’re saying is, if we can get in front of those boards, and we can convince, say, even one of them of the wisdom of what we’re doing, they can flip a switch, although that’s probably way too simple, and put into motion a whole series of events which will lead in that state to the teaching of data being part of the math curriculum.

They have a petition (see link here) that they encourage people to fill out and send to their state boards.

He’s right that his solution is “way too simple.” In fact, for every state that I have worked with (16 states and Puerto Rico, as part of the ECEP Alliance), his description is downright wrong.

US States are all different, and they each own their own K-12 system. One of the important dimensions on which states differ is how much control remains at the state level (“state control”) and how much control is pushed down to districts and schools (“local control,” which is how California, Nebraska, and Massachusetts are all structured). What is being described is “state control,” but it still misses the complexity — it isn’t just the board that makes decisions. I have watched how Georgia (state control) and Michigan (local control) have created standards and curricula.

  • In Georgia, yes, there is a central control structure that makes decisions, but so many other people are involved to make anything happen. I was part of a Georgia Department of Education effort to create a precalculus course that included programming — this is coming from that centralized control. Our committee alone was six people. The course was stopped by another committee of math teachers (secondary and higher ed) who decided that “a course that included programming couldn’t also be math”. Let’s set aside whether they were right (I don’t think they were), the reality is that those math teachers should get a voice, even in a central control state. Even if those 6-10 people want something, you can’t just jam a new course down the throats of teachers who don’t want to teach it.
  • In Michigan, each individual school district makes its own decisions. (In California, high school graduation requirements can vary by district.) Yes, there are standards at the state level in Michigan, and those standards are supported by assessment tests that are state-wide, but the assessment tests don’t cover everything — districts have a lot of leeway. Even just setting standards goes way beyond the board. I’ve watched Michigan build both its social science and computer science standards while I’ve been here. The effort to build these standards are broad and involve teachers from all over the state. There are big committees, and then there are still lots of other people involved to make these standards work in the individual districts.

Let’s imagine that Levitt’s worldview was right — six to ten people make all the decisions. Play it out. Who sets the standards (desired learning standards) for the new data science focus? Not just those six to ten people. Who defines the curriculum — resources, lesson plans, and assessments? Who prepares the teachers to teach the new curriculum? And in a local control state, how do you enforce these new standards with all those districts? Nothing as big as changing the US math curriculum happens with just those six to ten people.

This last point is close to home for all of us in computing education. Every CS ed researcher I know who is in a CS department struggles with getting their colleagues to understand, appreciate, and use research-based methods. Even if the Chair is supportive, there are lots of teachers involved, each with their own opinion. How much more complicated is a whole state.

Education in the United States is a vast system. I’ve mentioned before that I have an Alan Kay quote on a post-it on my monitor: “You can fix a clock. You have to negotiate with a system.” You can’t fix math in the US education system. You can only negotiate with it.

Freakonomics misunderstands why the US education system exists the way that it does, what makes it work (informed teachers), and how decisions are made and executed within that system.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  November 4, 2019 at 8:21 am

    People, especially those who don’t work in education, seem to see education through a narrow lens. Maybe a tunnel is a better word. They see education as needing to prepare people for their (the critic’s) career path and everything else as extra. Sure data science is cool (for a geeky definition of cool) but there is more to math than that.

    In any case, most outside observers seem to see education as simple and straight forward. It is neither. That is why most businesses who try to change or “help” education fail at it. They don’t understand the problems they are trying to solve.

  • 2. Raul Miller  |  November 4, 2019 at 11:35 am

    You could also argue that many people use calculus results and precalculus variations on a frequent basis (and that those with a calculus background have a significantly better chance of understanding those results, of catching errors, and of finding useful applications for them than those without that background).

    Most useful examples of modern technology can serve as illustrations here.

    That said, there’s also a good case to be made for having sufficient motivation and drive to have picked up relevant practical experiences.

  • 3. Tom Morley  |  November 4, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    Low level “data related “ mathematics is often meaningless numerical manipulations with no conceptual framework.

  • 4. gflint  |  November 4, 2019 at 6:13 pm

    About the only thing I agree with in the pod cast is there is a major need for change in math curriculum. I look at my math curriculum and the difference between what I was taught in high school in the late ’60s and what I am teaching now is minimal. Rational Roots Theorem? Two column proofs in Euclidean Geometry? I look in the text books, which in most cases drives a school’s curriculum, and here is very little change over the years. It is like Wolfram Alpha and GeoGebra were never invented. Those polled think they do not use calculus daily because they have never been taught what calculus does beyond finding derivative and integrals by hand.

  • 5. Clint von Hayek  |  November 11, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    “I am a fan of Freakonomics Radio.”

    It’s always fascinating to me when someone who is normally a fan of some source takes rigorous exception when a topic is near and dear to their heart or knowledge domain. This is usually more informative of the fan than the source.

    Perhaps you should apply the same reasoning to 100% of the claims and assertions of Freak.

    “He’s right that his solution is “way too simple.””

    I think anyone digging below the thin veneer of glibertarian-onomics might find that to be the rule rather than the exception.

    • 6. rademi  |  November 12, 2019 at 1:57 pm

      I think it’s normal for people to object to news coverage in areas where they have expertise.

      News coverage, as a general rule, is prepared on a tight schedule by people who mostly don’t have time for in-depth research. And, if you work on a news office, you tend to have lots of “helpful” people sending you lots of stuff that you don’t have time to deal with (and which often makes no sense to you) but often is even less reliable than what gets published.

      Also, news coverage is largely aimed people with no significant expertise (since most people have narrow specialties but are still interested in other topics).

      And, in terms of selling ads and retaining subscriptions, some level of entertainment is what keeps the lights on. There has to be some level of expertise, also, but expertise isn’t a virtue in news when you bore your audience.

      Also… economics is particularly difficult, because of the tendency to think in terms of money. Dollars are not equivalent to dollars (a dollar I have is not equivalent to a dollar you have). But, worse, dollars can’t buy things which are not available. So economics doesn’t even work when people think purely in terms of dollars and neglect what dollars are representing (that said, that is roughly how accounting works). It’s a tough field.

  • […] just came across a quote from Alan Kay while browsing the web. Alan Kay is a programmer, educator, jazz musician and one of the key inventors of computing as we […]

  • […] just came across a quote from Alan Kay while browsing the web. Alan Kay is a programmer, educator, jazz musician and one of the key inventors of computing as we […]

  • […] just came across a quote from Alan Kay while browsing the web. Alan Kay is a programmer, educator, jazz musician and one of the key inventors of computing as […]


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