My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Education Reform That Really Matters, part II 

Debunking "More Requirements"

A great hubbub was raised last year when the Democratic-led Colorado state legislature declined to increase the graduation requirements for students in Colorado public high schools. Granted, much of that was due to the folly of the same legislature deciding to tackle the difficult and crucial subject of requirements for Sex Ed curricula statewide but refusing to take up real, academic requirements that influence college admissions decisions.

But a great deal of energy was spent lambasting the Democrats for their seeming weakness on education. And, while I tend to agree that Dems are weak on education, I don't happen to think that this was a case in point for demonstrating that.

My contention boils down to a simple question: will it work? Will increasing the requirements of math and science for students produce a student body better versed in principals of math and science?

I say: no.

Look at the evidence. Chemistry is required--are our students generally really good at chemistry? Algebra is required (mostly)--are our students generally very adept at Algebra?

So, what, pray tell, makes anybody think that simply adding another class or two to each students' workload will make them better?

But, for even more support of this hypothesis, I turn to "expert" research on the subject:

The U.S. intends teachers to teach—and students to learn—more mathematics topics each year in first through eighth grade than do the vast majority of other TIMSS [Third International Mathematics and Science Study] countries. In grades 5-8, the U.S. expects between 27 and 32 topics to be taught each year. This far exceeds the international median (21-23 topics per year) and contrasts sharply with the 20-21 topics intended by the highest achieving TIMSS countries.

Logic dictates that if you reduce the number of things you are trying to accomplish by 37%, you might just be able to spend better quality time on the other 63%. And, since the U.S. ranking in this study is about "middle of the pack", it must follow that several of the countries we're talking about when comparing breadth of curriculum outperformed the U.S.

So, why teach so much stuff? Do students in CTOPU ("Countries That Outperform Us")actually know more stuff than American students, or do they just know what they do know better than we do?

When specific topics are introduced to students also differs. In the top achieving countries, students are introduced to an average of seven topics during the first three grades and about 15 during grades four to six. U.S. students are introduced to nearly three times as many topics in the first three grades (20) and a few less during grades 4-6 (12). In seventh and eighth grade, to-achieving countries introduce almost twice as many topics as does the U.S. (10 vs. six). Thus the overall pattern for the U.S. appears to be to introduce students to many mathematics topics in the early grades, to continue to teach these every year, to move on to other topics before students achieve mastery, and to introduce few new topics to students in the last two years of middle school.

Does this strike anybody else as insane? If this analysis is true--and this seems to confirm it--then we are clearly operating on massively faulty premises. If the thought process is to introduce, move on, introduce, move on, come back to it a year later, move on, come back to it a year later, move on, etc . . . then it shouldn't surprise anybody that we don't perform as well as should be expected.

Tell me this: is there a single industry who trains their people through this model? Do athletes learn by this sort of model? I don't think so.

It is as if we're trying to teach little leaguers how to throw, how to catch, how to hit, and how to run the bases in their first season . . . along with how to do the hit-and-run, how to turn double plays, how to throw the split-fingered fastball, how to do a good defensive bunt rotation, and how to switch-hit. "That's okay that they don't get it all right now--they'll get better at it every year." Of course, the problem being that if they can't throw, catch, and hit, none of the other things even matters.

If a student doesn't know, for instance, their multiplication tables, then how, exactly, are they supposed to be any good at Algebra? Can you think of a single Algebraic function that does not include multiplication or division?

And, just to further the point, in a laughable display of incompetence, I will relate that TWICE last year my daughter came home with a note from her grade-level team saying "We continue to have difficulty with computation skills." Well, no kidding.

The point is this: from a philosophical standpoint, American education has, in many regards, abandoned the idea of developing skills, in favor of introducing concepts. Unfortunately, that philosophical shift has left our students sadly unable to accomplish much of what our counterparts in CTOPU take for granted.

So a critical component of any education reform must, in my opinion, include returning to the developmentof skills as the critical first step and first priority of schooling.

That does not, by the way, mean that skills development is the end point of education; but I would argue that all the conceptual understanding in the world is meaningless if you can't do the computation at the end to get THE RIGHT ANSWER.

In music, the most beautiful phrase in the world is largely unlisten-able-to if the players are hideously out of tune; somebody could memorize Hamlet and emote until the cows come home, but if they mispronounce every other word or if their voice cracks uncontrollably, nobody will want to watch them.

The most elokwent, wel-reezond argument in the wurld will cunvins nowun if it so porlee speld as two bee unreedabul.

Skills matter.

Then the question becomes "how do you encourage/guarantee that students obtain the necessary skills?"

More on that tomorrow.

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