Monday, January 31, 2011

It Ain't Just Claptrap: Can We Meaningfully Critique Our Schools?

On an education discussion list I follow, Jonathan Groves made that I will not reproduce here, in which he was critical of many aspects of US math and literacy education, based on what he sees in his own teaching at the college level. One reader of the list replied to Jonathan's post, "This is just a repetition of all the claptrap, generalizing, and stereotyping [this list] is supposed to combat."

I think the situation, particularly from the perspective of mathematics educators, is a bit more complex than would allow the dismissal of Jonathan's post as "claptrap."

The fact is that if you spend time in classrooms where things are not going well (for a host of reasons, not merely the short list that the deformers cite, if those apply at all), you can't help but be frustrated at how poorly we are presenting mathematics to a vast majority of students there. In that context, I speak of places like Detroit, but that list includes many other poverty-stricken places, large and small, in this country.

Next, looking at many classrooms in less economically depressed districts, one sees teachers who don't know the mathematics they're expected to teach (particularly, but not exclusively, at the K-5 level); those who 'know' the math, but don't know nearly enough about how to teach it well and effectively to any but a small number of so-called "mathy" kids - generally those who already like math, particularly when math is reduced to quick, accurate calculation; and then the lovely but all-too-rare cases of inspired teachers allowed to do their jobs without absurd shackles placed on them by national, state, or district tests and other idiocy that has little or nothing to do with mathematics or education.

We also know that this overall inadequacy doesn't result in an under-supply of mathematically competent folks. There's no shortage of mathematicians, economists, engineers, physicists, etc. That was made crystal-clear in THE MANUFACTURED CRISIS, but those numbers are ignored by the deformers, the anti-progressives in the Math Wars, by Obama and his "Sputnik moment," and many others.

So the question becomes much more an ethical one about whether to teach mathematics better to more kids for its own sake (the pleasure, power, and beauty of mathematics), for the sake of equity (everyone has a right to become mathematically competent and rise to whatever heights she desires and is capable of reaching), and for reasons of core democratic values (an innumerate citizenry is one easily deceived by politicians, demagogues, advertisers, and other scam artists). It is NOT a question of "saving" the economy with a new wave of math and science folks. So many jobs in the predictable future will NOT require all that much math or, for that matter, what's typically viewed as a college education, though competition and raising the bar may make folks have to have college degrees to get jobs that don't really require much of what colleges generally teach and students generally study there (in other words, even if employers choose to make a college degree a basic requirement for a service job, that doesn't mean the course of study will better prepare anyone to DO that job).

What this all boils down to, for me, is the issue of criticism from the right versus criticism from the left - to use a crappy metaphor - when it comes to public education. Not being of the educational deform mindset, my back goes up every time I read or hear an attack on our public schools that comes from Duncan, Klein, Rhee, the usual think tanks and foundations, the typical education reporter, ad nauseum. At the same time, I don't think our current public educational model is sound, I don't think it's been sound for a long time, and I think we can and must do better.

The problem becomes how to level correct, meaningful, constructive criticism at the system that leads to real change without throwing in with the deformers or inadvertently winding up supporting their causes (it's rather unlikely that they will help ours, no matter what their rhetoric about choice, accountability, raising the bar, and a host of other catch phrases and buzz words).

It becomes exhausting to have to keep repeating that I don't want to see our public schools dismantled or privatized, that I don't want to see teachers sacrificed on the altar of real or phony economic shortages (and misplaced priorities), that I "get" why we have teachers' unions, that teaching is a very difficult job, etc., etc., and that I STILL know that there are many crappy schools, crappy teachers, crappy administrators, crappy tests, crappy politicians with their fingers in the education mess making it worse, and a bunch of greedy asshats trying to suck away billions from kids into their own pockets, all the while singing psalms about global competition, accountability, 21st century skills, and so on.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.