I have been thinking a lot lately about the failure of our schools, particularly with regard to mathematics. It’s impossible not to notice what a terrible job our schools and students are doing at math, particularly when I am reminded about it once every hour or so by my twitter feed. I got on this kick because of the latest way we’ve been flogging ourselves, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results. When you look at the US in the rankings of countries, you won’t believe where we stood. We were, well, average. I know that here in the US we think that we live in Lake Woebegon where everyone is above average, but being average is just, well, average. The sky isn’t falling and our scores didn’t drop alarmingly. We’re all OK.
What if we aren’t all terrible at math, and what if our schools aren’t letting our students down? What if our schools are doing an OK job of educating students? Are they doing the best job possible with each individual student? Not likely. Are they moving lots of students through the pipeline, teaching them to read, do math, write, understand politics, know something about history, and even giving them a little art, music, and physical education? Yes, we are doing all that and more.
Remember the 90s and how Baby Eistein and similar products brought us the mistaken idea that if it is good to parent your kids, then its even better to parent them really really really well? If parents do flashcards, teach their babies to sign, buy the right educational toys, and twist themselves into the right knots, we will raise a generation of kids that is uniquely poised to become super-geniuses. Except that none of it really works. Yes, when a child is hungry or neglected, or when a family is living too close to the edge to provide a normal environment for the child, then the child’s brain will be impacted in a negative way. Poverty really does hurt kids. But that doesn’t mean that environments that are excessively enriched will produce geniuses. More is better when you don’t have enough. But when you do have enough, more won’t continue to produce improvements in results.
The same is true of schools, of math education. We need to have schools that are good enough. Schools should be full of teachers that care about kids, that have some training in both subject areas and pedagogy. Schools should have the financial resources and leadership to support teachers and families. But schools don’t need some kind of huge overhaul. There is no magic bullet of ipads or entrepreneurship that is going to change our failing schools into amazingly successful schools. Sometimes it seems like we have found the answer. Like giving kids computers. Like unschooling or hackschooling. Like teaching kids to code. There are a lot of good ideas out there, but we can do them all and still not get better results. That’s because our schools are already doing OK, and thus any new idea we cram into our full educational system will replace something else that was already good for a lot of kids.
Yes, we should continually look to improve the way we educate kids. From where I sit, I see that we should particularly pay attention to how kids learn math, what math they need to learn, what math they might want to learn, and how to creatively help kids get more of what they need and want while we still have them in this amazing system that seeks to help absolutely everyone to gain skills and knowledge. But we will get a lot farther in that enterprise when we acknowledge that we are trying to solve a problem that is really hard, and that the people who are at the front lines of our educational system — the teachers, support staff, parents, administrators, and higher-education faculty — are doing a lot of amazing things and having a lot of success already.