Saturday, February 12, 2011

If Americans understood math

Feb 11, 2011
'Building a Society That Can Actually Do Things'
by Emily Alpert
Voice of San Diego

The first time I met Chris Lawrence, I had just wrapped up moderating a panel on the dropout rate. Lawrence complained the panel was full of "vacuous nonsense," as he later put it. His frankness impressed me. So I do what I do when I meet someone interesting: I asked him to get coffee with me.

Lawrence, who teaches physics at Mira Mesa High School, is a good person to get coffee with. He's a big thinker who once flew planes for the Navy and decided to go into education after the release of the landmark report A Nation at Risk.

In San Diego Unified, he started a new program that trains students in renewable energy and once fought an overhaul of its physics programs. But he's worried we're still at risk. And he has ideas for an overhaul of his own.

In fact, when I asked him what was wrong with our high schools and how we could fix it, he rattled off so many answers that I decided to break them down into sections:

Changing High School

Finland is one of the places everyone touts. When you're 15 years old there, you have to start applying to high schools. They have more technical oriented, job oriented programs and then more university bound ones. You can still apply to the university from the technical level. But because they have two programs, 90 percent of the students or so actually graduate from what they call secondary. You can do that here. You'd have to Americanize it and allow multiple bites of the apple if someone wanted to try to go to university. But it could be done.


You'd set some clear grading and assessment criteria so that grades aren't all over the map. You could easily coordinate and align it with our UC, CSU and community college system. Universities wouldn't have to have remedial classes.

Rethinking Math

People aren't properly learning arithmetic. So let's base arithmetic on constructive and tangible things that people can actually do. Look at the serious problems that confront our youth today — they're broke, they don't understand money, they don't know how to feed themselves. Arithmetic to them is an abstract mathematics...

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