Nicholson Baker and the plight of math teachers

So, I have just started the Baker article in Harper’s and I’m already pretty annoyed. However, I’m more annoyed (I think) by the reality of the situation than I am by his argument about the situation. We are in day three of school here and one of my jobs as Dept Chair is to sort out math placements for new international and domestic students. I have had the following conversation (or some variant of it) at least three times in the past day and a half:

Student: Why am I in this class? I should be in a higher class, I’ve learned all of this already.

Mr Dardy: Well, your placement test indicated that this was the best combination of challenging you without putting you in a situation where you might fail.

Student: That test? that was unfair, I don’t remember all of that stuff.

So, my question (asked out of frustration) is this – Do other disciplines have the same plague of students not knowing things they claim to have learned already? More importantly, do they deal with some inherent assumption that this is okay to not know what you claim to know? I know I’m not asking anything novel here, but I needed a virtual place to vent a bit so I can continue to smile and deal with my young charges with good cheer.

2 thoughts on “Nicholson Baker and the plight of math teachers”

  1. Always the problem. My wife’s school deals with this as well; viz. a student transferring in in 11th grade with the following: 9th grade, honors bio, B+; 10th grade, honors chem, C+. Where do you put such a kid in a school where physics is a senior-year course? I have no answers…but just know that you’re not alone! (As an aside, my wife’s school takes a number of international students – read Chinese – each year, and have learned that in China, chemistry is for girls, and physics is for boys. So when they try to place boys from China in chem, they get insulted. Neat, huh? Even in English, apparently placing international students is a real trick. The students think they are much more capable than they are. Maybe that makes you feel better.)

    By the way, what annoys you about the Baker article? 😉

  2. We’ve got a similar situation with an influx of internationals. Our biggest hang up is figuring out what to do with Geometry…

    As I reflect on the Baker article I think that there is one big thing that is under my skin. He hammers home the impracticality of Algebra II and he certainly has a point there. We talked about this at your session at EduCon. Death to rational function graphs, I get it. Death to phony hooks such as the Baselisk lizard, check. But as far as practicality goes – you could replace Algebra with many other things such as biology, chemistry, Shakespeare, etc. The stance that learning needs to be practical to be justified is troubling. Maybe I’m misreading him a bit but I kept getting that taste from the article.

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