The Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequity and Threatens Democracy by Michael Crieghton, author of The Information Society, describes in great detail the philosophical underpinnings of the techno-utopian dream of the future. In today’s world, as Crieghton points out, “we live in a quantified society-in which numbers matter more than people.” He goes on to say that this “does not augur well for our democratic politics, since the masses are increasingly demotivated by their lack of understanding.” Although Crieghton does not go as far as to call for a federal government mandate for a nationwide system of numbers, such as the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core Standards for Mathematics (CCM), he makes quite compelling case for considering how much greater the impact is the use of such basic math measurement on our society. As he notes, “The bottom line is this: No one cares about your IQ, your score, your college grades, your job performance, your income, your political affiliation, or your religious beliefs if you cannot understand what is being communicated in any given communication.”
While this may seem like a rather academic topic-one best left for the classrooms of kindergarten and high school-Crieghton nevertheless goes into great detail regarding the motivational impact of poor performance on average students. Moreover, he demonstrates just how significant a role math can play in a variety of settings, including career, family and relationships. Ultimately, Crieghton argues that such considerations shed light on why we should care about the way people think even if they cannot answer a math question.
The underlying premise of The Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequity and Threatens Democracy is that math has a particularly profound impact on the performance of students from disadvantaged and low-income families. In addition, he demonstrates that the effects of these problems are not isolated to schools. Rather, they pervade the American society as a whole. This is because even when teachers, parents and students do everything they can to engage in meaningful learning, there are still consequences beyond the test scores and grade point average.
A number of years back, school mathematics was seen as a subject worthy only of the best teachers. Those who made the grade were believed to be intelligent and capable, and the only thing that could bring their talent to the classroom was the desire to teach. But today, this is certainly not the case. The fact is that even very good teachers are falling behind in terms of both practice and content, and in some cases they are being forced out because they simply cannot keep up with the rising numbers of students who are doing better on the tests than they are. As a consequence of this disturbing trend, many teachers have decided to embrace the use of testing as a way of gauging their overall abilities and as a means of identifying those students who may need additional support to excel in the field of math.
However, although the tools that are used for math teaching may improve performance, this is usually accompanied by a number of other issues that serve to undermine the influence of these tools in the classroom. For example, tests and quizzes make students work hard beyond what they might be able to manage, and the resulting pressures often lead to negative behavior from students. Moreover, as big data becomes more prevalent in the educational landscape, it becomes increasingly important for teachers to question whether these tools are posing a danger to the cause of equality in the classroom.
Examining how math is used in the classroom reveals the real dangers that these big data can pose to the cause of educational equity. A prime example of this danger comes from the use of tests like Schutzhund to gauge the skills of students in order to determine which students should be permitted to take advanced mathematics classes. These tests manipulate the conditions in the classroom, making it impossible for many students to remain engaged in the process of learning the material at the advanced levels. As more math teachers become conditioned to rely on standardized tests to teach the material to their students, this poses a clear threat to the achievement and success of all students. Worse still, the widespread reliance on standardized tests presents an unprecedented danger to the future of American education.
The problem is not so much the tools that are being used in the classroom, but rather the way that these tools are being implemented. Although math teachers can and should remain committed to developing curriculum that is attuned to the needs of students, relying too heavily on standardized tests to teach the material inevitably produces a situation in which students feel as if they are being tested. This in turn has a variety of serious consequences. First, because standardized tests are essentially objective, students inherently feel as if they are being tested in a particular manner and that they cannot avoid being assessed accurately. Even worse, students who feel as if they are being tested have lower scores than students who believe that they are being taught an accurate and personalized curriculum.
This reality leads inevitably to one result: a reduction in the quality of education that takes place in the United States, and a subsequent wave of decreased educational opportunities. By teaching students in mathematics the wrong way, the consequences of this approach can be disastrous. But there’s no need for American school districts to suffer this tragic loss. Because using the weapons of math destruction-big data in the classroom can have the opposite effect by increasing inequality. Educators should instead focus on helping students understand the magnitude of their mathematical problems so that they can develop an understanding that will enable them to seek answers without feeling as though they are being tested.