Musings on Failure in School

The Math Obstacle

Undergraduate Boy In the past few years, reports came out showing strong correlation between failing Algebra and graduation rates — if a kid fails math, he/she won’t be getting their high school diplomas.

Here are a few articles describing the studies:

“Is Removing Algebra a Key to Reform?” by Daniel Duerden, August 13, 2012

“A Comprehensive Study of the Predictors of High School Outcomes: Why Some Students Graduate on Time While Others Drop Out”.

“A Correlation Study of Accuplacer Math and Algebra Scores and Math Remediation on the Retention and Success of Students in the Clinical Laboratory Technology Program at Milwaukee Area Technical College” by James Manto, August 2006.

“Is high school tough enough: Full report” by The Center for Public Education.

There are many more…

Some suggested that based on evidence, we might just want to drop the math curriculum from high school graduation requirement — if there’s a strong correlation, perhaps by removing math, we might remove the problem and more kids graduate. Obviously, I don’t think that this a great solution. But I do come across the math problem a lot as part of the educational evaluations I do in my small practice. What I see is a persistent failure to understand some fundamental principle of mathematics (sometimes going back to a third grade) which results in consistently poor school performance, low self-esteem, and a strong belief that “math is just not my thing.”

But math is everyone’s “thing”! Basic algebra is need in dealing with family budgets, reading and filling out tax forms, and dealing with banks. One of the problems with the recent banking disaster was that both borrowers and loan officers couldn’t really do the math!

So what is it about math? I would argue that math is a language and has a set of basic grammar rules. But unlike other types of languages, math is not simply “absorbed” from conversations or through reading. We are not explicitly wired to grasp the rules of algebra and need formal instruction. If a kid doesn’t have the vocabulary or grammar skills to read Hemingway, teachers don’t assign him. But we do push kids into progressively high level math classes without checking or confirming that they understood and conquered the skills necessary to be there.

When I do educational evaluations, I test math skills going back years. Because the kids that feel they “don’t do math” are the ones that missed something important a long time ago and just can’t catch up. Sometimes, these kids can “fake” it by having the English language skills to follow explicit direction on how to solve a particular problem. But move them just a smidgen from a standard presentation, and they are lost — they can’t reason using mathematical grammar.

These kids will never pass Algebra — they don’t have the skills necessary to do that. Taking the same class over and over again won’t help — the skills they miss were taught years before (not in Algebra). So if Algebra is a requirement for graduation or college admission, these kids are not graduating or going to college!

A Healthy Doze Fear

Girl in Purple There’s another psychological trait necessary for success — a healthy doze of fear of failure. We all have a capacity for worrying. Some a lot more than others… We all are wired to feel guilt. Again, some more than others. A lot of worry and guilt can be completely incapacitating, leading to depression and low quality of life. But too little worry and guilt is also really bad. The kids that don’t loose sleep over undone homework or their lack of math comprehension are not likely to do something about it. My sons went to Lowell High School in San Francisco — it is a school of worriers AND incredibly successful students. Worry and success go hand and hand. Worry and guilt shape behavior.

There’s a set physiological worry level for every person (just like there’s a set happiness level). Too much fear, and it consumes us, resulting in loss of sleep, depression, appetite loss or weight gain, inability to make decisions or follow through on made plans, and lack of productivity. Clearly students that worry too much don’t do well in school — too much of their working memory is occupied by negative thoughts, leaving no room for thinking and problem solving. But the opposite is also true — too little worry, and procrastination sets in. Worry-free kids put entertainment before work — schoolwork looses out to fun every time. Kids who don’t worry enough don’t feel the need to study or feel the acute pain of failure as those who do. Hakuna Matata kids don’t feel the responsibility for their own actions and begin to drift.

Between too much and too little worry, there lies the Goldilocks zone of Healthy Doze of Fear. Kids in this zone do well in school, and when presented with intellectual obstacles, they ask for help. They work hard not to fail and worry and feel guilt when they don’t do as well as expected.

This means that in addition to teaching kids math grammar to the point where they feel fluent in its language, we need to create behavioral scaffoldings that help our students achieve the Healthy Doze of Fear.