Math Education in the US

I’m growing more and more disappointed with math education in the US. I’ve heard many neighbors complain about the Everyday Math curriculum in our local elementary school. I won’t go into that in too much detail, but we have concerns.

My current frustration is with what I’m seeing in some kids I know. When I encounter young people in my neighborhood or at family gatherings, I like to challenge their math. As you can imagine, this does not make me popular with them. :-)

Here’s a rough summary of a conversation I had the other day with a 14-year-old who gets very good grades in math:

Q: What’s 25 squared?
A: 50

Q: No, 25 times 25.
A: I don’t know.

Q: Well, what’s 20 times 20?
A: Um … 40?

Q: No, not 20 plus 20, 20 times 20?
A: Oh … um … 200?

Q: Try again.
A: Oh .. 400.

Q: Okay, now what’s 30 times 30?
A: 600?

Q: What’s 3 times 3?
A: 9

Q: So …
A: Oh, 900

Q: Good. So guess what 25 times 25 is.
A: 1200?

Q: No, 20 times 20 is 400 and 30 times 30 is 900, then 25 times 25 has
to be between 400 and 900, right?
A: Oh … um … 500?

It seems to me that a 14-year-old should know 25 squared without thinking about it. And if not, they should be able to figure it out quickly. You know, 25 times 20 is 500, and 5 times 25 is 125, so … 625.

On the bright side, I’ve had similar conversations with a 9-year-old and he did better.

Makes me worry for America’s future. It also might explain some of our financial problems.

Police, Prosecutors and Prisons

I had an interesting conversation yesterday at Thanksgiving. A family member was expressing extreme dissatisfaction with police. He was complaining about what he sees as an excessive amount of police interference in our daily lives. This covered everything from speeding tickets given to working stiffs and immigration enforcement destroying local farmers who rely on illegal aliens to do the work that Americans won’t do. He said his father used to complain about how we lost so many of our rights in the 1960s and 1970s, and he sees that only having continued and getting worse under the so-called War on Terror. I’ve heard many others say we now live in a police state, and I have trouble disagreeing.

Then he said something that got me going. He said that police should focus on (and I’m paraphrasing) violent criminals, thieves and drug dealers. That last one is when I turned on him. Why drug dealers?

I expressed my view that the War on Drugs is responsible for much of his complaints. Some defense lawyers refer to the drug war exception to the Fourth Amendment or to the Bill of Rights. Check out this Google search for some examples.

This cousin also described his view that all police were mean and nasty. I do not agree with this, having quite a few friends in uniform.

The truth about policing, along with prosecution and prisons, is that it’s all a nasty business. While most cops are now well paid (deputy sheriffs are often underpaid), the job itself is not pleasant. Their basic function is to deal with criminals, who tend to be less than friendly sometimes. At the same time police have to deal with difficult bureaucracy. The Albany Police Department is particularly notorious for how it treats the regular cop, but there are problems in many others.

While my cousin blames the police for their intrusions, they are really just following orders. Our orders. In the US, whenever a “problem” arises, the default answer is now to make the problem a crime. That means we need more police, more prosecutors, and more prisons. This is expensive, and the canary in the coal mine appears to be California cities, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks provoked an extreme surge in this respect. Now police are focused on our borders and on fears of terrorism. I talked to a federal prosecutor who said that these priorities were so great there are no resources to focus on some other crimes like mortgage fraud. So, in the end, Osama bin Laden really took down our country not through terrorism itself, but through our overreaction to it.

Atheism: Prejudice is Alive and Well in America

A few days ago the Wall Street Journal did an article about outreach efforts by atheists. I did think that was kind of funny. There’s an interesting parallel with libertarians trying to control the government.

What stands out about the discussion is the well-documented prejudices against atheists, now apparently the most hated minority in the US. People who fear being accused of racism will openly attack atheists as untrustworthy, and throw other slurs without hesitation.

There were two letters to the editor about this in today’s paper that show the idiocy of this prejudice. In one, Tim Keith says the following: “Without God, ethics are unavoidably subjective and therefore ultimately meaningless. Atheism claims the mantle of reason but is built on a fundamentally irrational foundation.”

Belief in God does not make ethics any more objective. The 9/11 terrorists surely believed in God, yet I doubt Mr. Keith found their conduct ethical. While religion underlies countless honorable actions, it also has been invoked in many atrocities. The same is no more or less true for atheism. Atheism is no more shaky than the many religions out there. Some of the devout believe that the universe was created 6000 years ago, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. And I won’t even begin to get into the evolution/creationism/intelligent design thing.

Andrew Ooms writes in his letter: “If there were no divine being who had summarized his will for humans in the Ten Commandments, the only governing rule would be the natural one of survival of the fittest.” Ooms implies that atheism would mean a lot more crime.

Strangely many societies have managed without the Ten Commandments. They are not commonly found in Asia for example. I lived in Japan for a year and didn’t see a single reference to them. Japan, where religion is far less pervasive, also has far less crime than our highly religious country. Does this mean religion causes crime (as some atheists might say)? Nope. I can say with some confidence based on years as a criminal defense lawyer that the leading causes of crime are stupidity and mental illness. You find both among the religious and the non-religious, probably in roughly equal proportions.

You don’t have to be religious to believe in principles. I’m quite fond of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). I remember learning early in my Japanese studies to think about how things look from someone else’s standpoint (tachiba). Similarly, concepts like the tragedy of the commons (generalized in economics as externalities) provide a sound basis for civic thinking. And how about Mr. Spock’s famous self-sacrifice based on the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one?

Our society is built upon foundations laid by believers and non-believers. Both deserve respect.

The Obama Landslide and the Future of Fiscal Conservatives

Obama’s landslide victory yesterday is a strong rebuke for the last 8 years of mostly Republican rule. One has to wonder where the GOP will go from here.

I am hopeful that the fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party will find a way to reassert itself. The dominance of the social conservatives and neocons led to growth in spending that made Bill Clinton look prudent.

My fear is that Republicans in the Senate and House will go along with the Democratic majority in order to get their earmarks and bacon for their districts.

Sadly I think the latter scenario is more likely. What are fiscal conservatives to do now?

On the one hand we may find some hope in the Democrats. Here in New York State, Governor David Paterson has shown promising signs about the state budget. But it is far from clear that the state legislature will work with him to keep spending in line.

On the national level, Barack Obama seems pretty sharp. He should look back to Bill Clinton’s first two years in office. With the Democrats in control of both houses and the White House, they ran amok. Republicans stormed both houses in 1994 on Gingrich’s Contract With America.

If Obama and the congressional Democrats are wise, they will make sure they don’t give ammo for another 1994. To do that, they have to avoid the excesses we saw from the Dems in 1993-1994 and from the Republicans from 2002-2006.

But what if the Democrats blow it and spend our money as recklessly as the Republicans have? What do fiscal conservatives do then? If we can’t trust the Republicans on this – and they’ve shown us we can’t – and we can’t trust the Dems, then we may have to look somewhere else.

I’d like to say we turn to the Libertarian Party. But that route is fraught with problems. The LP, at least in NY, has had trouble keeping a focus on a central theme. I’m optimistic about the current leadership though. Maybe that’s the next step.

For now I’m crossing my fingers about Paterson and Obama.