Monday, April 11, 2011

From The Edufadosphere

Education loves fads. Or at least education publishers love fads. And what better excuse could there be for a new fad than a study which shows some probably accidental correlation between some facet of education and life success. Kevin Drum is on the case. He links to this Washington Post story by Peter Whoriskey.

Of all of the classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success, according to research that has launched a growing national movement to require it of graduates.

In recent years, 20 states and the District have moved to raise graduation requirements to include Algebra II, and its complexities are being demanded of more and more students.

Kevin and a researcher who did the original study are both doubtful that the correlation implies causality. In fact Kevin says:

But I'm willing to bet a significant amount of my income that there's no causal relation at all between Algebra II and success in holding a top tier job. The only correlation is that smart kids tend to take Algebra II and smart kids also tend to go to college and end up in top tier jobs. Algebra II itself has nothing to do with it.

I’m not so sure. I believe in the theory that what you do can stretch your brain and that learning things like Algebra II can improve your thinking. Lincoln seems to have been of a similar opinion – he worked on Euclid’s Geometry until he could prove every theorem in books I-VI at sight, even though geometry has little to do with law or politics. Still, I think Kevin’s point is closer to the truth than the opposite, though I would probably say “smart and ambitious kids take Algebra II”.

He adds:

I'm a math nerd — or at least I used to be until I discovered I wasn't as smart as I thought I was — but this seems crazy even to me…

Me too, except that since it took me longer to learn that I wasn’t as smart as I thought (I didn’t attend an elite university), I’m still a math nerd.
If the Algebra II for you too trend becomes universal, I predict that (1) there will be more dropouts and (2) a new study will find that geometry, (or trigonometry, or calculus, or physics or something else hard) will have the highest correlation to life success.

More from the WaPo article:

To check the Algebra II findings against the “real world,” the Achieve researchers then asked college professors and employers to identify which skills are necessary to succeed.
Somewhat to their surprise, they found that whether students were going into work or college, they needed the skills taught in Algebra II. Other independent studies backed them up. One conducted by U.S. Department of Education researcher Clifford Adelman found that students who took Algebra II and at least one more math course attained “momentum” toward receiving a bachelor’s degree.
“There was a fair amount of judgment that went into this,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve and a former assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration. But “it turns out to get the skills needed, students had to reach Algebra II.”
The push for Algebra II had begun, and it was embraced by many states.
But not everyone is convinced that Algebra II is the answer.
Among the skeptics is Carnevale, one of the researchers who reported the link between Algebra II and good jobs. He warns against thinking of Algebra II as a cause of students getting good jobs merely because it is correlated with success.
“The causal relationship is very, very weak,” he said. “Most people don’t use Algebra II in college, let alone in real life. The state governments need to be careful with this.”

I report ... or rather Kevin and Peter report, and you ... well, you don’t really get to decide anything ... but you can form any damn opinion you like, and share it in the comments.