What’s Wrong With Math Education

In Washington there are efforts to double the number of foreigners given work permits to fill hi-tech jobs. We are told that there are not enough qualified American citizens to fill hi-tech positions. Because of this shortage we must import up to 200,000 foreigners to work in hi-tech industries here in the US. Many people do not accept this, arguing that American workers are not being hired because they want things like living wages and benefits and that foreign workers are more docile and willing to work for less in the curious form of indentured servitude that those given H1B visas have to endure.

But accepting for the sake of argument that there are not enough qualified Americans to work at hi-tech jobs, what does this say about Americans in general? Are we just too dumb to do that kind of work? I don’t think so. So if Americans have the ability to work at brainy hi-tech jobs but aren’t, then what’s the reason? For the answer we have to consider the only relevant factor unique to our country in this case- our educational system.

Education for hi-tech needs a drastic overhaul in this country. Many of the basic building blocks of computer hardware and software design can be taught not in college but in middle school. I have taught binary math, computer logic gates and the basics of electricity to middle school kids from East L.A. to the suburbs of San Diego. And I can tell you that kids eat it up. They get it because it is simple and they are surrounded by it. They must be taught the basics of electronics and computer hardware and software in middle school and build on those basics in high school. Transistors and logic gates and binary math must be as natural and second nature to American students as long division, phonics and Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Transistors, logic gates and binary math must become part of the educational curriculum in 21st century America if Americans hope to get hi-tech jobs in America.

At this point, the question is often asked; do they teach those things in these other countries where all these hi-tech workers come from? Well, one must remember that most of the foreigners who work here legally are not the average representative of their native country. They are usually wealthy and highly educated. They are rarely the product of the public schooling of their native country. They are usually the type of people their country can least afford to lose but they come to America nonetheless, for the same reason that all of our ancestors came here. They come, and perpetuate the phenomenon of the “brain drain,” where the U.S. takes the best and brightest that the world has to offer, leaving other countries shorn of their most talented and qualified people.

Another protest often heard is that “We can’t all be engineers. We can’t all be computer programmers!” “Not everyone is cut out for it!” Teaching kids about transistors and logic gates and binary math is not training them to be engineers. The countries that excel at manufacturing and run huge trade surpluses with the U.S. are not inventive geniuses that create hi-tech inventions out of their own ingenuity. rather they will take a technological invention, the overwhelming majority of which came from the U.S. and figure out ways to mass produce it at less cost than any one else. As anyone who has worked in a factory can tell you, not everyone in a factory has to be an engineer for that factory to be successful. But there does have to be a certain body of knowledge about certain things.

Quality depends on statistical quality control, (statistics is hardly taught in American schools.) A knowledge of geometry and trigonometry is required in fabricating and producing any number of manufactured goods. (Geometry and trigonometry are not heavily emphasized in American schools.) Instead of having math curriculums that teach relevant subjects like statistics and geometry, we have this dogged fixation on algebra and calculus. I would like all the degreed professionals out there to ask themselves how often they use algebra and calculus. I have had design engineers tell me that they have never used calculus. If engineers don’t use it, why torture the rest of us with it? Now I’m sure there are engineers that use calculus but a lot of them don’t.

Statistics and geometry. These are the math subjects we should be emphasizing to our students, especially the bottom 20% grade wise who will never make it through college but might be able to make it in one of those good paying factory jobs because he or she learned about statistics and geometry in their high school. And there might be more of those good paying factory jobs when employers start noticing all these surprisingly bright and productive Americans who seem to be able to perform all of these specialized factory positions with hardly any training. It’s a very expensive proposition to ship products from all parts of the world to America and companies will try to avoid it if they can. This is possible if we change what we teach our students in school. The basic curriculum taught in American schools has not changed in over a hundred years. Over a hundred years! This is why we need 200,000 foreigners every year to work in our country. It is criminal how the American educational system has failed us and it must be changed radically in order to ensure our survival as a nation.

Peter Honan