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Friday, November 13, 2009

Math is your friend? Maybe not in NYC

An interesting, and depressing, story concerning the utter lack of basic math skills on the part of freshmen at City University of New York:
During their first math class at one of CUNY's four-year colleges, 90% of 200 students tested couldn't solve a simple algebra problem, the report by the CUNY Council of Math Chairs found. Only a third could convert a fraction into a decimal.

I don't expect everyone to be able to grasp topology and maximum likelihood techniques. On the other hand, my five year old is working on adding fractions - and starting to get the hang of it. I understand I am a right-tailer, but am I all that different? Is the lack of skills the result of poor inputs to the education production function? By inputs I would point to physical structures of the school, the teachers, the textbooks, the technology, the pedagogy, the kids themselves, the parents, the social environment, the peer effects, the economic status of the kids' families, the home life of the kids, the competing public/private options to the public schools system - did I leave anything out?

I have read a little of the (economics) literature in this area - for instance the impacts of class size on student learning outcomes - but I am not steeped in all of the findings. However, I would hazard to guess that most of the policy options have only marginal impacts on student learning and learning outcomes. My guess is that it all starts at home - if there is no support (mental, physical, nutritional, intellectual) then the policy choices face a perhaps insurmountable hurdle (on average) and the student is permanently left behind their better facilitated peers.

The wide disparities in public education in this country is something I never focused on - primarily because it isn't my area of research and I didn't have kids of school age. Now that things are different, at least the second reason, I notice more of the disparities. What is the answer? Can public policy overcome the negative or low-quality inputs that some students bring to their own education production function? Is it possible for a federal, state, and local government triad to sufficiently homogenize the inputs to the education production function so that we might expect considerable improvement in student learning outcomes? I find that an interesting thought experiment - my conclusions are not very pessimistic.

The previous administration's answer was to attempt a federal takeover of local education. That isn't working out too well it seems. The new administration will likely try more of the same rather than introducing more competition to the marketplace.

If the public schools in NYC face such difficult obstacles that they graduate more students without basic math skills than with, my guess is that this problem is spread over any number of cities and towns across the country. That doesn't bode well for our future vitality and competitiveness in the "global" economy.

I suppose I should start saving more for retirement.

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