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The Math of Least Resistance


At an Education Town Hall meeting earlier this month in Lansing, Michigan, 400 educational leaders heard this story from Dr. Marilyn Schlack, president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College:

KVCC recently got a major grant to build a wind turbine and create an innovative new alternate-energy career program, training wind turbine technicians. They received over 500 applications. The minimal prerequisite for application was successfully completing Algebra II--but the 16 candidates selected for the prestigious pilot program all had top-flight math coursework credentials, including success in national AP math exams. When they got into the actual hands-on learning in the program, however, the selected students had great difficulty in applying the mathematics content they had aced the previous year.

Dr. Schlack used the story to illustrate the point that good grades and high scores on standardized and national tests were no guarantee that students could integrate and utilize what they knew--sometimes, a credential is just a credential, a test score merely a number. I thought of her story this week as education writers and analysts--from the Wall Street Journal to Kevin Carey--poked holes in Diane Ravitch's simple-but-elegant prescription for saving public education: school by school, pay close and continuous attention to curriculum and instruction.

Education wonks and armchair pundits hate this kind of traditionalist thinking. Curriculum and instruction are dull and unsexy, and push wide-scale policy-lever solutions to the periphery of the discourse. This is why we hear lots of pontificating about recruiting and rewarding quality teachers--including those break-the-mold whiz kids who cut their teeth in the country's toughest classrooms--but almost nothing about consistent, quality teaching.

Few education writers have direct experience with analyzing or even identifying effective classroom instruction. They limit their commentary regarding curriculum to repeating the shopworn viewpoint that important content has been universally watered down. They wouldn't know true rigor if it rang their doorbell.

Take the problem Dr. Schlack identifies: these students were top-scoring performers in high school and AP math classes, were seeking degrees in a cutting-edge STEM field, and competing for limited slots in a rigorous program. The problem was translating their already-tested math knowledge into shovel-ready skills and application. Their difficulties can't be traced back to lack of market-based schooling options, teachers who didn't get merit pay, or the fact that none of their teachers came from Teach for America. Their troubles are directly tied to curriculum and instruction--the way they learned to "be successful" in math.

More in the next blog about why the prospective wind turbine specialists may have found their mathematics coursework insufficient for the tasks and skills embedded in the innovative program. It has to do with curriculum and instruction, of course.

A hat tip to Public School Insights and the Core Knowledge Blog for links and opening and pursuing this discussion.

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