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Illusions of Rigor: Creeping or Created?

Often, newspaper articles about the state of math education make me want to tear my hair out. Unfortunately, not much hair remains!

On September 8, 2012, the editorial board of Tacoma's News Tribune published "A Global Reality Check on American Public Education."

Attempting to once again scare stakeholders by putting recent state scores in an international context, the editorial mentions Katie Baird's recent book Trapped in Mediocrity. (Note: Baird is an economist who writes for this same newspaper.)

Amidst all of the usual facts and claims about why American students compare so poorly relative to students in other advanced countries, Baird mentions a new one I had never heard before.

She writes: American students are taking more impressive-sounding math classes than in the past, but objective measures show they aren't learning much more math.
An "illusion of rigor" has crept into our schools.

First, I have no idea what she is referring to, as to changed course names. I doubt the switch from Algebra or Geometry to Integrated Math A & B implies something more impressive!

And second, I do not think the "illusion of rigor" crept in...It was purposely created by a combined effort of many teachers, students, and parents. Think about the words "Honors" or "Advanced Placement"... especially, in light of a school which needs to have a certain n-size to run a class or has "college-anxious parents."

The result: these classes end up including students who are not at the "honor" or "advanced placement" levels.

So, why blame the illusion, when we should blame the reality!