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February 21, 2010

More math and science may not be the answer…

by Chris Lindholm

"Research tells us that students who take Algebra II or who successfully complete 3 – 4 years of high school math have a much better chance of success in college."  Does anyone else find this all too common statement by legislators and so called "education leaders" a bit shallow?  Haven't college bound students (and those who are successful in college) always completed higher level course work across most subjects areas?  Leaders and lawmakers have shifted some of the focus of public education discourse towards a negative and unproductive path - specifically in the areas of math and science.  The incredibly important issue of better preparing students for a 21st century economy will not be answered by simple minded, silver bullet actions such as increasing enrollment in AP classes or making all 8th graders take Algebra I.  The call for change to improve student achievement demands far deeper, far richer, and far more meaningful conversation. 

Tony Wagner writes in The Global Achievement Gap:

I am not suggesting that math and science aren't important subjects (or that all students should be required to study Greek).  The question is not whether to teach math and science but, rather, what to teach and how.  How many students graduate from high school today knowing how to solve algebra problems by rote, but do not understand math as a way of thinking about how to solve problems?  Similarly, how many high school students take three years of science – including biology, chemistry, and physics – but do not know what the scientific method is and how to use it, as we saw in the AP chemistry class described at the beginning of the last chapter?  We keep hearing that all students need more math and science courses, but I believe that all students need more engaging and relevant math and science courses.  The question is: What should all high school graduates know in order to be literate in math and science as disciplines of problem solving? 

Wagner gets it.  Preparing students to do well on a test is, well, not that tough – and not enough.  It  simply requires getting a copy of the test and drilling through the concepts and the answers with the students.  The insistance on using such tests to measure school performance by those advocating for NCLB and more AP test prep is sorely short sighted.  The 21st century economy will require students to do far more than is asked for on these tests and yet the political focus on these tests is driving dollars and attention to, well, the test scores.  In the end, we are becoming more and more sophisticated at test preparation and less focused on preparing for what comes after the test… life. 

Wagner's call for rigorous dialogue focused on aligning curriculum and school practices with 21st century work place requirements is on the mark.  Much more important than taking a few tests, students need to be prepared to think, write, speak, collaborate, research, investigate, synthesize, and create in jobs that are not even invented yet.  School performance needs to be measured by how well students are prepared for 21st century success through assessment practices that are rigorous, capture depth and nuance, and well aligned to modern day work place skills, content, and concepts.  A look at Wagner's work is a good place to start that conversation.

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