Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for September 12th, 2021

Portraits from our yard, episode 13

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Throughout August I kept my eye on the lone Eupatorium serotinum plant growing where our driveway meets the curb. Gradually the plant began putting out buds, which toward the end of the month finally started opening. Common names for this species include late-flowering thoroughwort, white boneset, late boneset, and late-flowering boneset. At one point I noticed a tiny bee, maybe only a quarter of an inch long (6mm), as shown in the closer picture below. Some of the buds look like miniature cauliflowers, don’t you think?


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The United States is in a bad way, educationally speaking. That’s not new, but things have worsened. Three mathematics professors who had come to the United States as immigrants made some important points about that in a recent Quillette article entitled “As US Schools Prioritize Diversity Over Merit, China Is Becoming the World’s STEM Leader.” (STEM is an acronym for ‘science, technology, engineering, mathematics.’)

In a 2015 survey conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examinations Board, about 55 percent of all participating graduate students in mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering at US schools were found to be foreign nationals. In 2017, the National Foundation for American Policy estimated that international students accounted for 81 percent of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering at U.S. universities; and 79 percent of full-time graduate students in computer science.

That report also concluded that many programs in these fields couldn’t even be maintained without international students. In our field, mathematics, we find that at most top departments in the United States, at least two-thirds of the faculty are foreign born. (And even among those faculty born in the United States, a large portion are first-generation Americans.) Similar patterns may be observed in other STEM disciplines.

In a 2018 report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), China ranked first in mathematical proficiency among 15-year-olds, while the United States was in 25th place. And a recent large-scale study of adults’ cognitive abilities, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that many Americans lack the basic skills in math and reading required for successful participation in the economy. This poor performance can’t be explained by budgetary factors: When it comes to education spending per pupil, the United States ranks fifth among 37 developed OECD nations.

There are numerous underlying factors that help explain these failures—including some that, as mathematicians, we feel competent to address. One obvious problem lies in the way teachers are trained. The vast majority of K-12 math teachers in the United States are graduates of programs that teach little in the way of substantive mathematics beyond so-called math methods courses (which focus on such topics as “understanding the complexities of diverse, multiple-ability classrooms”). This has been true for some time. But the trend has become more noticeable in recent years, as curricula increasingly shift from actual mathematics knowledge to courses about social justice and identity politics.

At the same time, math majors—who can arrive in the classroom pre-equipped with substantive mathematics knowledge—must go through the process of teacher certification before they can teach math in most public schools, a costly and time-consuming prerequisite. The policy justification for this is that all teachers need pedagogical training to perform effectively. But to our knowledge, this claim isn’t supported by the experience of other advanced countries. Moreover, in those US schools where certification isn’t required, such as in many charter and private schools, math majors and PhDs are in great demand, and the quality of math instruction they provide is often superior.

There’s plenty more in the full article.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 12, 2021 at 4:36 AM

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