Letters to the Editor

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Editor:

When I read the commentary “A New Paradigm” Fred Noel’s Jan. 23 response to my two-part commentary (“Keep the American Dream Alive,” Jan 2 and 9), I immediately recognized the voice of an administrator. He sensed that he recognized a “prevalent teacher assumption” embedded in my piece. Regrettably, as a newcomer to education with the audacity to write about public education, I trigger all the usual defense mechanisms and reprisals; no wonder my sense of job security rivals that of an Oakland Raiders’ coach.

My prolix opinion piece was understandably published in two parts and so the continuity was broken; but, the flow chart was essentially this: the upward mobility in this country exceeds that of any nation; that parents mistakenly — not necessarily by design — condemn their children to income stagnation. These are conclusions published in a study by Bhashkar Mazumder on upward mobility in the United States. As Casey Stengel might have said, "You could Google it."

The third link in the flow chart was: Proficiency in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) component provides the best opportunity for economic advancement.

None of these three are my assumptions; I like to crouch behind findings published in the Economist or the Wall Street Journal.

As a statistician and statistics teacher, I am always noticing and sometimes quantitatively demonstrating relationships between variables that correlate positivity, or negatively, with math achievement.

Chronic tardiness, absenteeism, quotidian pleading for the bathroom pass, trousers worn sag style, texting in class, multiple tattoos and piercings, no textbook, no pencils, attempting to power nap in class, all correlate negatively — despite politically correct denials — with low math achievement.

They reflect an attitude inimical to the attainment of math proficiency. Technically, these are not assumptions, they are testable hypotheses.

Parents signaling low expectation, making excuses, blaming the system or teacher, citing family traditions of low math performance, also correlate very strongly with low math achievement.

For most students, math is hard work; math proficiency requires active learning; not passively gazing in the direction of the teacher, or staring at the text.

Having to do rigorous math and apply strenuous thinking just to learn math is a disagreeable, odious fact; any covert glimmer of a green light to circumvent this process is often seized on by students.

Such side-stepping of rigorous math ultimately correlates highly with economic stagnation given that STEM is the principal conduit to upward mobility.

 

— Jeffrey R Smith
Editor: My sons and I would like to express our gratitude to the members of the Alameda community who supported our 2014 New Year’s Day scholarship fundraising event held at St. Philip Neri Parish Hall. With everyone’s generous contributions we are funding a fouryear scholarship for a collegebound student who attended La Escuelita Elementary School, an Oakland inner-city school where John taught fifth grade. We will continue to accept input and donations to fund the scholarship in John’s honor. Visit www.johnlrosascholarship.org for further information and updates.

Editor’s note: John Rosa passed away April 19, 2013. His obituary appeared in the April 25, 2013, edition of the Alameda Sun.

— The Rosa Family: Jan, John, Jim and Jeff

Editor: Math teacher Jeffrey Smith gets the math wrong in his commentary on “The American Dream.” (“Keep the American Dream Alive” Jan. 9). To start with, he extols the significance of a student leaping from a lower quintile of the population to a higher quintile, forgetting that movement within such a relational dataset has little significance for the nation as a whole. For every person who advances, someone else must necessarily drop into a lower quintile to take his or her place. In and of itself, the relational dataset shows no net gain or loss. A better math would be to compare the absolute numbers over time. For example, since 2008 all quintiles except the topmost have fallen in wealth. During other periods, all quintiles have risen. In all economic eras, the important questions have always been: 1) “Where is my next meal coming from?” and 2) “Am I sweating rent?” Few of Smith’s students, or any other students, or for that matter adults, are worried about quintiles. Quoting the “2.5 million STEMs needed by industry” is another common math mistake. In accepted math theory, that figure is not defined as a real number, since nothing has actually been counted to bring it into being. It is a literary construct, a propaganda term used by Silicon Valley mavens to lobby Congress for higher immigration quotas so they can lower wages. The 2.5 million is impressive and sounds like a number, but it’s not. It’s an emotion-loaded symbol posing as a number. The notion that American technologists will save the U.S. economy has been pushed hard in the media for the last 30 years. What always happens is this: When a technology is found to be commercially viable, U.S. banks and investment firms finance factories in China, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, Thailand or some other country that pays wages 10 cents on the dollar. Nowadays great things are only accomplished with cheap labor and other people’s money. The dollars are printed by the U.S. Federal Reserve at taxpayer expense, handed out to their banker buddies, and shipped overseas. America’s greatest export is its dollars. Smith is right that Americans, young and old, must study and master mathematics. Math will help them defend themselves from their numerous enemies: real estate hype agents, loan officers, car dealers (new and used), stock jobbers, investment “consultants,” military recruiters, advertisers, health insurance sales women, corporate and government bureaucrats and politicians, all of whom have been known to use dodgy math in their career paths. And yes, let’s not forget opinion writers in the local newspaper. Hopefully Smith’s “STEM” saviors won’t invent any more cell phone apps; that would just make his task in class more difficult.

— Steve Tabor

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