Sunday, July 3, 2016

Beyond the Math Myth: Workforce Planning

Nobody here got at chance to take the SAT exam

Andrew Hacker once remarked he wasn't sure the storm he stirred up about the misuses of math and math testing--as it has become a coin of the realm--is something he would have chosen as his top priority, but the ramifications of his simple, honest, clinical observations in his book, "The Math Myth"  created a shock wave that has been more powerful than anything he could have predicted. 

It is as if he were Oppenheimer, looking through the observation hole,  as the first atomic bomb goes off in the desert and he says, "Oh, my God, what have we unleashed?"

So it is with the whole mythology of math, that "math is the language of science and technology" and so every student who wishes to graduate high school or enter college and certainly every student who wishes to distinguish himself by going to an elite college has to be conversant in that language, and not just a single language but it is as if he has to be good at Greek, Latin, French, not just English.  Math is, says one of the educators he quotes, now used the way Latin once was--to discourage and eliminate smart people who simply don't have the patience or talent for it. There was a time anyone who wanted to be a physician had to excel at Latin. 

And, of course, there may be many different types of intelligence. While some psychologist think "intelligence" is a single trait, others, like Howard Gardner think there are multiple types of intelligence and someone may have much of one type and little of another. 

Autistic people and  idiot savants may be extreme examples of people who have astonishing capacities and baffling deficits. Gardner described eight types of intelligence which might cluster in an individual but in some people only a few are highly developed: bodily intelligence (dancers); linguistic, musical, mathematical (or logical, if...then); naturalistic (sensitivity to the natural world); spatial (knowing where you are, where you came from and how to get back, from a fixed point); interpersonal (sensing how others are reacting and what they are thinking, something some autistic kids may lack); intrapersonal (understanding one's own emotions and thoughts.) 

She had the right stuff for her job

One needs only read the book by Frans de Waal, "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Intelligent Animals Are?" to understand the nuances and breadth of what intelligence is, not just in human beings but across species.

Because we hope to match people to work they can be successful doing, the whole notion of intelligence is critical to tooling up our economy for maximal success and efficiency and it is critical to the individual as he or she starts down a path toward a career or the lack of one.  This used to be called, "Manpower" when most jobs were held by men and women stayed home, but now it's called "Human Resources."  It's one of the determinants of whether or not the United States will be able to compete in the global marketplace.  Can you get enough people to be competent in enough areas where competence is needed to successfully make automobiles, airplanes, software, create financial systems, create health care systems? 
He had the right stuff for his job

What Hacker points out, almost in passing, in The Math Myth is that the policy makers in the United States, in government and in education and in industry and in the professions have been rank amateurs when it comes to the whole discipline of "manpower."   We have all bought into the idea of the importance of "STEM" education, science, technology, engineering and math without ever stopping to actually analyze whether STEM education is as important as its advocates claim.  In 2014, 19.5 milion American adults had scientific or engineering degrees, but only 5.4 million (28%) were working in STEM fields. There simply were not enough jobs for all the techno heavy graduates we had trained. And the rewards of those jobs were oversold.  Engineers, it is true start at high salaries out of college but those high starting salaries never increase and 10 years later, many of those engineers are working in jobs which have nothing to do with engineering or technology. To increase their salaries or to advance in their careers most engineers have to shift to management, a whole new skill set for which they have not been trained and for which they  may have no special talents. 

Of course, the PhD in philosophy who drives a cab and the law school graduate who sells real estate has become a cliche, but the fact is the mismatch between what schools are training students for and what they can become is widely known.  Hacker tells of a community college which started training students to be software engineers or welders or whatever because a local industrial giant complained they could not find workers to fill all the jobs they had, but once they had started graduating classes with hundreds of appropriately trained graduates, the company decided to fold up its tent to to relocate overseas.
Machinists never out of work 

Committing yourself to two or four or ten years of education is always a bet, always a gamble, and the more narrow your preparation the greater the gamble. Sometimes the gamble pays off. My friend who went through four years of college, four years of medical school, a year of internship and a year of residency decided he would devote himself to mastering a single technology: colonoscopy. It took him six months to get proficient and about a year to really master it. For thirty years that technology remained essentially unchanged, and he was able to buy a large coop on the upper West Side and a house in the Hamptons all because he bet on colonoscopy as a cash cow. Had some new technololgy come along which proved superior, he would have been out of luck.

Another friend trained to be a surgeon and had a good 20 years using techniques it took him 5 years to master, but then laparoscopic surgery arrived, with demands for a whole new set of intelligences--laparoscopic surgery is more like playing a video game and touch, spacial relationships are no longer so important as being able to handle the joy stick. Those surgeons who had been trained in the old "open" techniques became obsolete over the course of 5 years as the new technology supplanted the old. Their bets were good for 20 years but many of them could not afford to retire when they found themselves put out to pasture. 

The most appalling thing is that the very institutions which were designed to foster analysis and dispassionate inquire, the academic institutions, colleges and universities failed at that core, essential mission when it came to embracing STEM and the math myth and whole variety of untested beliefs.  Directors of admission accepted the SAT exam as the only measure of "intelligence" and drew a line at a math score of 690  and verbal of 700. This simplified their job of winnowing down applications of 16,000 to a single college. But, of course, it also meant they eliminated a lot of gifted students who were simply not gifted in the SAT math score of 690 department.  There is a scene in the Bible where a general realizes he can only cross the river with half the soldiers he has gathered there, so he says, choose all the soldiers who are drinking from the water with cupped hands and leave behind all those lying face down drinking.  An arbitrary device for separating people. The SAT is just as arbitrary. 

People often point to the fact that both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg got into Harvard as proof that however flawed the admission process is, it can at least identify special talent.  Of course, the fact is those two were very gifted in math in the way which allowed for high math SAT scores and which allowed them to ace calculus, to solve polynomial equations and to code software.  But the rest of the class who were not quite as gifted did not go on to found Microsoft or Facebook. What of them?  Did Lin-Manuel Miranda, who read the same biography of Hamilton millions of others had read but was able to conceive of rendering that story as a Hip Hop musical, did his math SAT exceed 690? And if it had, was that part of his intelligence important to what really made him successful?  

And of course for every Bill Gates, we can think of those folks who were culled out because of a math score below 690, who clearly belonged at an elite college. In high school, I dated a girl who clearly was one of the most articulate, insightful, verbal people in my class. Her intelligence was nuanced, considered, analytical and she was very funny.  She was in the "advanced placement" courses and everyone from those classes applied to the Ivy League and Stanford and Amherst and Swarthmore and schools like that. To everyone's astonishment the best school she got into was Carnegie Tech. She had something to prove, and she transferred to Barnard, graduated Columbia Law and went on to a stellar career and made more money than, I would hazard a guess, 505 of the 520 people in our graduating class. In fact, she may well have made more money than the total of the 505 below her. 

You can say, well, so the system worked. It was the "Girl Named Sue" thing--she had something to prove. I would say, the system failed to identify talent and she was only the most extreme example.

Looking at exceptional cases and trying to make manpower policy based on those is a fool's errand. When it comes to large numbers of people, we need to look at the numbers Professor Hacker looks at which clearly must mean that we are in fact training way too many engineers for our economy to absorb and we may well be selecting the wrong people for the jobs they are being shunted into.

The former chief of Radiology at one of the nations most elite medical schools was, every year, faced with the prospect of choosing from among 400 applicants the 10 residents in radiology he would train.  Those 400 came from the 20 most famous brand name medical schools. Most of them were the sorts who never had less than an "A" since kindergarten and who had high SATs and high test scores in medical school. He could have almost put all the names in a hat and blindfolded chosen any of them because there was so little difference among these "perfect" applicants.

But then, one year, somehow, a different sort of applicant slipped in. He had played linebacker at North Carolina State in college and he was Black.  When he started, first year, he was probably number 9 or 10 in the class, with respect to his knowledge of anatomy and pathology. But he was very coach-able. When he got something wrong, as all new residents do, he learned from his mistake. He was almost pleased to be corrected. "Oh, yeah. Right. I got that now." When his perfect classmates got something wrong, they fell apart. They were not accustomed to failure in any academic pursuit. Every month the big Black linebacker got better and by the end of the residency he was among the top 3.  

So, did the chief of radiology go out looking for new prospects from among Division One football players? No.  He could not bring himself to make that leap. The linebacker might be the exceptional case. There was simply not enough data to know what to do. 

But it is cases like this which can or should cause academic institutions to do studies to develop new metrics to think anew about what they are doing.  To date, none of the American universities has done anything of the sort. What they care about is the US News and World Report rankings. Careers rise and fall on this commercial product, which nobody in academia effectively questions. There is a hurdle to jump over and nobody asks: Why? 

Nobody, that is except Andrew Hacker. 

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