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I spotted a post by Chris Breisch that pointed to this article in the Washington Post by Richard Cohen.  It is the story of Gabriela Ocampo and her battle with, of all things, Algebra. 

In short:

Last year, she dropped out of the 12th grade at Birmingham High School in Los Angeles after failing algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it. So, according to the Los Angeles Times, she "gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School."

Passing a year of Algebra and a year of Geometry is a mandatory requirement to graduate high school in this and many other US school districts.  A misguided attempt to close the math and science gap and make the US more competitive.  Force it down their throats.  Ya, that'll work.

Even more astounding to me than this were some of the comments left on Chris's blog by would be pundits. 

Paul Wilson writes:

Wow, I'm speechless too. I've seen plenty of people that don't know how to write or locate things on the map or basic history either, and more than one or two of them have also fared well in this world, so I guess by his reasoning we shouldn't require English, geography, or history either -- and yet he doesn't see that flaw in his own reasoning. :(

Writing is one thing.  You can get by without it.  The same is true of reading.  Try to get by without language at all. 

Missing the Sahara Desert by an entire continent is the geographical equivalent of blowing (2 + 2) = 4.  Not knowing the capital and chief exports of Uzbekistan, or even where it is, would be on the same level with solving quadratic equations.  Let us not forget that Shelly mislocated the Sahara Desert in geography class.  Shelly is not a housewife from Topeca. (who more than likely could find the Sahara Desert on a map)

As far as History goes, say it with me everyone, those that do not learn from it, are destined to repeat it. 

Richard never said that Algebra should not be required and actually suggests the opposite:

Look, Gabriela, I am not anti-algebra. It has its uses, I suppose, and I think it should be available for people who want to take it. Maybe students should even be compelled to take it, but it should not be a requirement for graduation.

It's the basics that are the most important.  Communicating your needs and counting your change are far more important that being able to calculate ballistic trajectory.  Hmmm.  Maybe that's the key.  Algebra, and more specifically quadratic equations, are central to being able to drop something on somebody from a distance.  Exactly who is dropping what on whom is an exercise left to the reader.

Tim Doak offers up this glistening pearl:

I hope Gabriela likes working at McDonalds but not as cashier!

I'm not sure it's even worth exposing the flaws in this statement.  First, you say this as if it were Gabriela's fault.  Have you ever failed at anything despite your best efforts Tim?  I'll bet you have.  I'm willing to bet that there are tasks in this world that you will never be able to perform.  What if we made them mandatory to your continued advancement? 

There are worse things that can happen to you than working at McDonalds.  There are lots of people that actually enjoy working there.  There are many examples of people that have started out working the fry station and gone on to own their own stores.  Perhaps Gabriela is one of those people.  She is certainly not lacking in drive and determination.  She tried to pass algebra seven times! How many of you would have tossed it in sooner?  Despite the mantra of parents and teachers that “you can do anything if you just stick with it and don't give up“, not everybody gets to be an astronaut. 

Not as cashier?  What in the name of Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi does algebra have to do with making change for a Happy Meal? 

Not Joking hits the nail on the head:

OK, OK there is one tricky problem that I've never been able to solve, maybe you can help. What are the odds that, given there'll never be enough McDonald's restaurants to contain all the people we think are stupid, that some self-important, deeply naive dweebie will say something like "They should work for McDonald's?"

Well, you've taken us beyond Algebra, through the realm of Probability Theory and into the domain of Statistical Analysis. 

Original post time to self-important, deeply naive dweebie saying something like “They should work for McDonalds“.  Thirty-two minutes. 

I'd say it's a statistical certainty. 

Who knows what talents will lie dormant and undiscovered in Gabriela because of the misguided notion that ballistic trajectory is important for everyone.  Just what does the US government have planned for the future?  Now, the projectile could be something as innocent as a football.  According to some though “Violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact crypto-fascist metaphors for nuclear war.“  Given that the Derek Lutz character was played by Robert Downey Jr., that could just be the drug induced paranoia talking.  ;-)  Somehow though, I think it hits pretty close to the mark.

Just because I can...


posted on Saturday, February 18, 2006 9:11 AM


# re: Gabriela Ocampo And The Day Education Died 2/19/2006 6:27 AM Paul Wilson
For the record, I do not believe that Gabriela should be "required" to pass algebra in order to graduate either. Instead I was expressing astonishment at Cohen's very misguided editorial which tried to redefine the issue out of existence instead of discussing solutions.

So what is one possible solution? The one that I'm personally familiar with, and which was used in the state that I attended, was to have different types of diplomas. There were at least three different types of diplomas -- I don't recall the exact names, but it was something like advanced, standard, and certificate.

I don't think there actually was a special name given to the "standard" diploma -- it was simply what you got if you completed all of the basic requirements, which did include passing something like algebra. The advanced diploma indicated that so many additional college-prep type courses were passed, including additional mathematics. The "certificate" indicated that the person receiving it attended school to completion -- I do not know if some courses were required to be passed or not.

Now realize that no one actually ever notices the type of diploma you received once you got it ! If you wanted to try to go to college with a "standard" or "certificate" diploma then you could still say you graduated high school just like someone with an "advanced" diploma did. Of course the college will have your transcript and realize the differences in what courses you took and/or passed, but the point is that they won't "know" you received a "lesser" diploma and be able to discriminate unjustly.

Similarly if that person with the "certificate" diploma goes to apply for a job all they have to do is say that yes they did graduate from high school and that is completely true -- again there is no opportunity for discrimination. Now that employer is of course still justified in determining your fitness for that particular job by asking you questions or giving you a test, but if that job doesn't expect algebraic knowledge then there isn't a problem.

So what's the point? Yes we should not ruin someone's life that can't pass algebra, for there may be legitimate things that person can do in our society. On the other hand, we also have to be very clear that there are certain expectations for those that are going to pursue college or other specialized training. I think we should also be honest with our young students that there are often going to be differences in pay for those different paths, although we should also be clear that this is not always the case -- which is probably what Cohen should have tried to say.

The difference between "success" and "getting by" is not something like algebra -- it is instead something more subtle. Are you going to work at McDonald's, manage one, or own one? Are you going to be a warm body that programs, or are you going to do more? The potential exists for both little pay and great pay in most lines of work -- and there's nothing inherently wrong with choosing one over the other.

# re: Gabriela Ocampo And The Day Education Died 3/31/2006 6:59 PM vivien ocampo
good story gabriela really good

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