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December 12, 2004

Cool Bob vs MathAndScience

I didn't have a good math teacher until my freshman year in college. Actually, my second freshman year, as some might know my tortured path - I was a freshman in '78 and in '82. This good math teacher actually had a degree in mathematics and he was the first math teacher I ever had who did. We called him 'Cool Bob'. He was a longhaired guitar player who dated the daughter of a judge, and he wore holey jeans and plaid flannel shirts. I would have been surprised if he didn't drive a VW Bus. His was a bonehead math class that took us all from pre-algebra up to calculus ready in a 5 unit daily class. I learned everything I was supposed to learn since arithmetic in two semesters.

As I was doing this at Cal State (the class was Math 098 an EOP class, by the way) I was getting interested in campus politics. The class was mostly black and hispanic, offered as part of the special minority program (I had to petition to get in, not because I wasn't black, but that my SAT scores were too high - but I hadn't come straight from highschool). The overwhelming success of this class was a source of pride and embarrassment and pointed to a huge failure in California public education.

Within a semester or two I was officially a BMOC. I had a 3.6GPA in the Computer Science major, I had interned with Xerox, I had my own car, off campus apartment, I was on the Dean's List, and had been elected to at least one of my many offices, all that carrying 16 units. As this kind of role-monkey, I merited a seat on the Student Advisory Council to the Minority Engineering Program. Among my duties were evangelizing the goodness and light to be associated with mathandscience.

And so while I was a geniune gearhead, having ordered Christmas toys from the Edmund Scientific Catalog since my 9th birthday (can you say 'fresnel lens' boys and girls?), most people had no use for mathandscience. Or at least they had elaborate excuses and self-conscious explanations at the ready. In my newfound appreciation of all things institutional, I easily made the connections between the makeshift state of affairs in the California teaching credential business, racial segregation of educational resources and the 'startling' success of Cool Bob's class. Bottom line, crap math teachers everywhere.

This understanding was underscored as I finally started in on Salas and Hille. My first real calculus class was taught by a Chinese guy whose English was pretty poor. I wouldn't trade places with that guy for all the coffee in Starbucks. Imagine having your ability to teach daily impugned by a horde of snot-nosed suburban white kids from the San Fernando Valley. "It's like, you know, he can't speak English. I'm so sure." So I learned (with difficulty, in a very tense and staticy class) about derivatives, mis-pronounced with three syllables.

In the mid 80s, in the middle of the Cold War, in the stirrings of the semiconductor industry, on the eve of a battle against Japan Inc, the economic reality was that if you could speak good English and you understood mathandscience, the overwhelming odds were that you were either already working in Southern California's aerospace industry or you were on your way there. The good majority of Cal State's non-tenured faculty in the School of Engineering & Computer Science were youngish to middle aged immigrants whose combination of poor English and green card status conspired against their careers in those places all the ambitious Valley parents wanted Biff & Becky to work. Mathandscience was the helpful handmaiden to the new middle class, of which I am an outstanding member, over the backs of Khalid, the graduate assistant.

Spengler was my second ever native English speaking professor with an actual degree in Mathematics. I was frickin' 23 years old! By the time I got into her Analytic Geometry section, I had started to make my own excuses about math. It was mostly out of competition for brain-space, what with my burgeoning national student political career. I really kinda wasted the opportunity and just did C work. However I did have a particular affinity for iterative math which dovetailed with computer stuff. So while double and triple integrals gave me fainting spells, those big sigmas were my friends. I could have practically lectured the class on Taylor Series, for what it's worth. I know Spengler probably wouldn't have minded, as she always made much hay over the fact that her 10 year old daughter corrected our homework.

As a matter of fact, quite frankly, I haven't used any of that math in my career. Nor have I used much of my History, French and absolutely none of my PE. But that's beside the point which is that it's damned hard to get competent math teachers who actually teach well. Despite all the volume about how desparately our precious little darlings and poor unfortunate underprivileged urchins need mathandscience, you'll rarely hear anything about Taylor Series, eigenvectors or differentials in all that blather. Good math teachers are just rare, and made more rare by the obscene political wars over putting them in front of the 'right' students.

What I believe is that there is basically no excuse for six years to pass between learning fractions and doing elementary calculus. The fact of Cool Bob's ability to do it in one year is testament to the structural deficiency in our educational system, public and private. (I did go to a private highschool which also had no degreed math instructors.) And maybe the very liberal ambitions of Cool Bob are precisely what we need. You see, he threw a wrench in everyone's agenda. He actually loved Mathematics for its own sake. Nothing could make him happier than sharing that love with students. Kids from the 'hood came out of his class ready to beat down Calculus, and they knew what they were talking about. Not because they were patriots trying to outdo Sputnik, but because they finally got the competent Math instruction they deserved.

Posted by mbowen at December 12, 2004 10:41 AM

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The Brotherhood of the Hypotenuse from baldilocks
Simple questions: How many people do you know who don’t know that ¾=.75=75%? Or that all of them are fractions and represent a portion of a solid, whole entity of many parts? I wonder about this when I hear it [Read More]

Tracked on December 13, 2004 06:49 PM

Mathandscience for All from Gongol.com
A really good autobiographical story about just what we most desperately need: More Americans who know math, science, and logical reasoning. Other parts of the world have figured out that those are the keys to economic growth. We seem to think it's som... [Read More]

Tracked on December 15, 2004 12:40 AM


If you've told MY story (albeit indexed a few decades to the right of mine) you've told the story of a zillion more students.

Actually I had pretty good HS math, but miserable tutelage in a state megauniversity. I passed, but didn't "get it" until I had to do some bulletproof Fortran programming of a Newton-Rafson loop some decades later. This was for an early laptop used by me on the backside of the world, without a help desk to call at 2 AM. I had plenty of incentive to get it right!

Posted by: True_Liberal at December 12, 2004 03:07 PM

My next Africana.com piece is going to grapple with the Algebra project. There IS no excuse.

Posted by: Lester Spence at December 12, 2004 03:43 PM

My fave story is a fastfood order - it comes to $4.37, so I hand the HS grad clerk a five, a dime and two pennies. I get a quizzical look, but tell 'em to punch in that amount 'cause I want some quarters for a paper. When the register says 75 cents change, the clerk looks at me in awe like I'm some rocket scientist.

Posted by: True_Liberal at December 12, 2004 06:32 PM

I think you have something powerful there.

This article, a Tech Central Station discussion about eduquackery, and Professor Plum's blog may be of interest to you.

Imagine trawling through the Kyoto Protocol mess without basic engineering knowledge and some idea of how to manipulate numbers--you've just described some policy makers...

Posted by: Chap at December 12, 2004 08:13 PM

Good points indeed.

This TechCentral Station article, discussing one reason education is bad, and this ranting educator's blog may be of use to you.

Posted by: Chap at December 12, 2004 08:24 PM

One: let us grant that the teaching of, the enthusiasm for, math and science in the k-6 public school curriculum EVERYWHERE in the United States is pathetic, because...well, there are a lot of becauses. One is the lack of good teaching creates bad teachers, several years down the road.

"What I believe is that there is basically no excuse for six years to pass between learning fractions and doing elementary calculus. The fact of Cool Bob's ability to do it in one year is testament to the structural deficiency in our educational system, public and private."

Uhhhmm, let's talk a little about brain maturation, OK? For some kids, algebra & higher math comes like talking. For others, the abstract nature is really difficult until later in adolescence. So most of the kids in this remedial class were 18 or over, and can shovel in abstraction a lot faster than someone who is 14.

Think of it this way: most 3 year olds, no matter how advantaged or bright, neurologically are not ready to read.

The deal is to get a bunch of math science proficient folks into the teaching pipeline...I don't think you will be able to do that until teaching in the public sector is profoundly different.

Posted by: Liz Ditz at December 13, 2004 12:14 PM