How do we fix education?
LT: I have been in education since 1966. I don't think there is a quick fix. I go into classrooms as a guest teacher to give algebra lessons once a week to urban elementary school students of color. I see very bright students of color, which gives me high hopes for the future.
Sometimes, I think that education is a type of complex problem that has no single solution. Piecemeal solutions without evidence have failed. Top-down solutions from the district, state, and federal governments have fallen flat. The technology hype to improve achievement has never worked. I believe that many educational problems in schools can be solved by adjusting the curriculum to fit the students who walk through the school door. But, this rarely happens in a top-down bureaucratic system that dictates policy and methodology. (Also, kids need books, not laptops or tablets.)
We should upgrade curriculum and instructional methods to fit the students that walk through the school door, but we don't do that. We should sort math students by achievement starting in early elementary school, but we don't do that because it runs counter to inclusion policies of fairness. We allow our best math students to fend for themselves when they should be accelerated. It is a fallacy of fairness, says Thomas Sowell. Starting in the first grade, you don't place high-achieving math students with low-achieving students in the same math class, but that's what we do. In elementary school, high-achieving math kids need acceleration taught by experienced algebra teachers, not a so-called "math educators" trained in progressive schools of education.
Policies dumped on teachers by higher-ups should not drive education, but they often do. Common Core and annual testing are two examples. So-called "fairness" policies that are an illusion of fairness are another. Group work and sitting in groups so kids can socialize (oops, I mean "collaborate") are more examples. Furthermore, often teachers are asked to teach a deficient curriculum using ineffective methods. Instead of teaching core (standard) arithmetic, we teach reform math, which crowds the curriculum with many alternative strategies (algorithms) and neglects standard algorithms.
Basic arithmetic doesn't change. But this has not stopped math reformists from marginalizing standard arithmetic. Reform math does not stress the mastery of standard arithmetic in long-term memory. Reformists believe that "memorization" and "drill to improve skill" are bad teaching methods. They are dead wrong! Consequently, American kids suffer and stumble over simple arithmetic and do not learn algebra well. Moreover, American reformist pedagogy promotes the early use of calculators and online programs via computers, laptops, or tablets to improve math achievement, but it hasn't worked. In fact, such technologies are "conspicuously absent" in high-performing nations.
Many education policies are toxic, or counterproductive, such as "equalizing downward by lowering those at the top," says Thomas Sowell. You can't equalize outcomes (Sowell). In fact, education should increases differences (Feynman). Making matters worse for children is that they are taught a convoluted form of math called reform math that hinders progress to algebra by middle school. The state standards, which are grounded in Common Core, are not world-class; consequently, our students start behind and stay behind internationally. Some of these things, I think, are fixable, but it doesn't take more government control or intrusion. Bold, individual teachers can upgrade math content to world-class and implement strong teacher guidance methods that are supported by the cognitive science of learning. Unfortunately, such teachers receive little if any support from the education establishment.
Dinesh D'Souza (America) points out that "Thomas Jefferson [Federalist No. 10] supported differences that were based on achievement and merit." The role of government is not to remedy the inequality of outcomes, he says. It is not the purpose of education either. Unfortunately, in education, any variation, difference, or disparity is automatically perceived as discrimination by the "equality" zealots, says Thomas Sowell. The idea is incongruous with the facts. Instead of attempting to close gaps by lowering those at the top, a pernicious practice, we should encourage and applaud the achievement of individual students who strive to better themselves no matter the color of their skin and not denigrate their efforts or accomplishment.
Ten years from now, I will echo the same narrative. Instead of pouring money into people and overhauling the teaching profession, we continue to put it in gadgets (technology) to improve achievement in our schools. There is a catch. Where's the improvement? Good intentions have never been good enough. The influx of expensive technology ($$$$$) in our schools, which had been promoted by special interest groups, has not resulted in the expected math achievement. Billions are spent on gadgets (tech), but little is learned.
Michael E. Martinez (Future Bright) writes, "Averaging the ups and downs over the years, academic achievement is slowly edging upward. The real challenge is that the rest of the world has made huge gains. In comparison to other countries, the United States has regressed in effectiveness." What we have been doing in math education has not been effective.
In my mind, well-trained competent teachers in math and science, starting in early elementary school, can make a huge difference in math achievement--not technology. Also, it seems that high-achieving university students don't want to become teachers because of poor working conditions and low pay. Another reason: teachers are not well respected.
Also, I want to state that the teachers are not to blame for the bureaucratic mess in education. They didn't create the problems. The teachers I have known are dedicated and do the best they can given the context in which they work. Instead, we should go after the progressive elites who train and certify the teachers, and we should hold accountable for the policymakers and the special interests. The public schools are expected to solve societal problems in our communities, which often sideline their primary function which is to teach kids to read, write, and do arithmetic.
To Be Revised
There will always be disparities in education and life, but, too often, the differences are automatically misconstrued as discrimination. "Differences in geography, demography, culture, and other factors can make economic and other prospects or outcomes unequal for different individuals and groups, even if particular institutions or society were to treat everyone the same," explains Thomas Sowell (Wealth, Poverty, and Politics, 2016).
It is unfortunate that education has been overrun by the progressive elites, reformists, ideologues, politicians, philanthropists, special interests, and lobbyists. It is called 21st-century education. (How has it worked? Achievement is flat.) For example, a particular TI calculator (30-SX MultiView) is required on the new GED. The College Board SAT is now an exit test in many high schools. Algebra textbooks often boil down to using TI graphing calculators. Online instruction and testing have become commonplace. Money has poured from our schools to special interests, e.g. technology and online "learning" and testing. Moreover, schools of education keep promoting flawed theories, unpragmatic Utopian ideas, progressive ideologies, and evidence-lacking fads or trends that don't work in the classrooms.
Twenty-first-century reformers demand more technology in classrooms to improve achievement, but the evidence of tech effectiveness has been scant. Indeed, we have had computers in classrooms since the 1980s, but recent national and international test scores have been flat (2015 NAEP, TIMSS, PISA). In short, putting more costly technology ($$$$) in classrooms has not and probably will not change the narrative. No one considers the cost-benefit.
© 2017 LT/ThinkAlgebra