I read the New York Times Magazine cover story about Americans' struggle with math, with special appreciation: I stink at math. I always thought my problems were a result of my unfortunate timing as a pre Title IX child. At a superficial read, I guess it's good to know the real problem is teachers--they can't teach math so we can't learn math. But, seriously, it's too bad we return over and over to the blame the teacher answer. It might make for good politics, but it doesn't make for good education.
There's been a lot of buzz this week about the Elizabeth Green article, "Why Do Americans Stink at Math?," which is an excerpt from her new book Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone). It even made my local public radio station, where the author and a bunch of teachers spent 20 minutes discussing over-testing in America, Common Core, and why teachers are being placed under too much stress. It's a conversation totally lost on parents and the general public and sounded disappointingly far from commitment to students.
Why are teachers so defensive? I think at least part of the answer has to do with how public policies are created. Public officials perceive a problem and seek change. That's what we want in our leaders, right--leadership! Yes, but we also want a voice in the government we pay for and that exists for us. The question remains--who is "us"? Presumably, students are the focus of education policy. But, what about parents? Teachers? Employers? They all have a stake in the education game too.
Green explores how good ideas germinate and flourish into innovations in America but we can't seem to fully embrace the breakthroughs. She compares Japan, where generous amounts of time (and resources) are invested in teachers honing their skills and practices, and the United States, where teachers are given new directives on how or what to teach with little time to adjust their approaches to the new material or methodology. Fixing this disconnect is critical to our ability to assure all American children have a chance to gain the knowledge and skills to be equipped for life in a global economy.
We've got a great start with figuring out what American students need to know in the Common Core State Standards, a set of learning goals in math and language arts that outline what students should know at the end of each grade, so they can finish high school prepared to succeed in the next step on their chosen life paths. They are the result of collaboration of our nation's governors and state education leaders. Federal stimulus funds gave the U.S. Dept. of Education the opportunity to provide incentives to states that adopted these new, higher standards. Allegations of "top down" abound.
Unfortunately, instead of using the introduction of Common Core as an opportunity to educate the public on what it takes to learn new teaching methods, or explain the complexities of implementing new policies, too many teachers have fallen back on complaining about mandates foisted on them by public officials. It's not a productive response, even if public officials play the power game first. And I promise you politicians are certainly playing the power game in this case. Parts of the Republican party are already developing a stance that opposition to Common Core is a necessary plank in the anti-government agenda for the next election cycle.
If public leaders took more time to work with teachers to make education policy change, and if teachers embraced innovations as opportunities instead of mandates to be resisted and ignored, we'd be able to implement our homegrown breakthroughs with as much success as our global competitors.