If your kids asked you why they had to learn Algebra 2, how many of you can give a productive answer? Not most of us. The National Center for Education and Economy, the NCEE, through a Georgetown University study, reports only 5% of occupations utilize Algebra 2. The author of this abstract report in Google, Linda Rosen, CEO of "Change the Equation (whatever that is) feels that giving kids low expectations in math is injurious to their future career and that we have to raise the bar. She then goes on to say that the NCEE is concerned that many high school students cannot even clear they existing low bar. So what does this mean? First, for the 5% of you who need Algebra 2 in for your careers, go for it. But what it really says is that the way we teach math is not working. If a student cannot see how something is applicable to their lives, they tune out.
The Burbank School system in CA is finally doing something about this and trying out a program this year dedicated to showing students how math actually applies to life. It is much more than memorizing some formulas and applying them to a problem. I loudly applaud Burbank for being progressive and recognizing, finally, that kids hate math because they cannot do it and cannot see how it is useful to things they do.
The best classroom project I was introduced to comes form The Windward School, a private school in Los Angeles. On Monday, the Science teacher walked into the classroom, divided the kids into groups of five, handed each group a large piece of sugarcane and said, "I be back on Friday. Turn this into sugar." How brilliant to make students learn that science is actually a process of turning a natural resource into a product we use.
Oakwood School in North Hollywood, CA attempted a program that combined English and History together so that History became much more them memorizing names and dates. The textbooks were too heavy to carry home so many skipped the reading and listened to teacher's lecture. Did you ever see the New Yorker cartoon where a dog is being reprimanded by his owner, "Now Fido, stop chewing the shoes, don't sit on the couch, don't pee inside . . . " And all the dog hears is "blah, blah, blah"? That's history. So some learned all they know about history through reading fiction. What's wrong with that? History was just too boring. Anna Karenina teaches Russian history by telling a great story. Bring it alive and at the very least show how history repeats itself and make it relevant.
Speaking of relevant, an annual rant is that schools do not teach current events. This could be as simple as having kids bring in an article that is of interest to them. But when high school students do not know that Iran and Iraq are different countries or that the Taliban is not a new music group, when the Kardashians are followed more closely than the Presidential hopefuls...there's a problem!
Finally the diatribe on learning life skills. While it should be up to parents to teach these, they don't. And this is a not just underprivileged households. I have wealthy kids who come in for counseling and report that they are off to college and do not know how to do laundry or write a check or go to an ATM or cook the simplest of things. It's not the upcoming academics that scare them; it is life and what they need to know to live it. Why can't schools skip Algebra 2 (except for the 5% who need it) and offer a course that actually teaches how to make a bed or, a more useful math skill, how to unit price at the supermarket?
Our schools are not only educationally out of date, they are not offering what kids need. Yes, everyone listens because it's true but it is time for something to be done on a national level.