I’d love to change the world
But I don’t know what to do
So I’ll leave it up to you
“I’d Love to Change the World”
—Ten Years After (1971)
British blues-rock group Ten Years After is one of my favorite Woodstock-era bands. They probably didn’t sing it this way, but when I hear “I’d Love to Change the World” on classic rock stations, I picture them with wistful, ironic smiles.
The refrain reflects the disconnect so many young people felt at the time; wanting change, but not knowing how to accomplish it.
Tax the rich, feed the poor
Till there are no rich no more
Acknowledging that we’ll run out of rich people before we run out of poor, hungry folks means your solution it has a major shortcoming.
Looking to others to solve problems while proposing flawed solutions is part of the human condition, a bit of childhood we can’t shake as adults. And nowhere is this on better display than when we talk about improving public education.
In my last essay I reached back twenty years to a 1997 scholarly paper on disengaged students to show that problems identified two decades ago were still hounding public education today.
This week I’m reaching back just ten years, to one of my own essays. “Math Wars” struck a chord with mathematics “traditionalists” who opposed new mathematics curricula. It was posted on a few math-related online forums. It was even quoted in a 2008 paper by Prof. George Cunningham, published by the Pope Center for Higher Education Quality.
I share this not because I’m entirely too pleased with myself, but because it shows that one doesn’t have to be a mathematician or teacher to understand a basic truth about teaching math. Prof. Cunningham pulled this quote from my essay:
If by “meaningful computational algorithms,” we mean simple, accurate and repeatable – things like the traditional addition algorithm, or long division, then the average student will never develop such an algorithm and should not have to try. Universal mathematical algorithms were developed ages ago by Archimedes, Euclid, Descartes and Pascal. There are not many budding Pascals in our school districts, but there are plenty of children capable of learning from the methods discovered by the great mathematicians in history.
Math traditionalists – mainly parent groups and mathematicians – believed in teaching those traditional algorithms. Getting the right answer using clear, concrete standards based on actually solving math problems was key.
Reformists – mainly the education establishment – eschewed the memorizing of such core knowledge, preferring student “self-discovery.” For them the journey was key.
I’m not making this up. Their own words: “The authors of Everyday Mathematics [a now-discredited reformist curriculum] do not believe it is worth students’ time and effort to fully develop highly efficient paper-and-pencil algorithms for all whole number, fraction, and decimal division problems.”
How did that work out? Cunningham noted that “In the past, most students learned all of the traditional algorithms in fourth and fifth grades without great difficulty, as do students in other countries.” College students “without the ability to multiply or divide multi-digit numbers without the use of a calculator will quickly find themselves enrolled in remedial math, where they will be taught what they should have learned in fourth grade.” Which is, of course, exactly where many college students find themselves today. Mastering higher mathematics requires a solid foundation. Only an “expert” could fail to understand that.
Prof. Cunningham was exploring whether the University of North Carolina’s education schools were helping or hindering potential teachers. Answer: UNC’s education schools, “like most throughout the United States, are very much in the thrall of the progressive educational culture” and “newly trained and certified teachers are not likely to be ready to help their students make the best progress they can.
Leaving K-12 education up to “the experts” has been a disaster, and not just for math. Millions of young minds have been damaged in what can only be described as wide-scale progressive social experiments on live and unwitting subjects using unproven methods. (Yes, Common Core, I’m talking about you.)
Sometimes the world doesn’t need to be changed. Sometimes we just need to rely on timeless truths, like mathematical algorithms. Since our public education system seems loathe to accept that, we need to apply the only leverage we have: Choice.
Choice brings competition. Competition will lessen the impact of the “experts” who have been designing and imposing these damaging, universal social experiments, and whose livelihoods are enhanced when pedagogy shifts like women’s fashion. Competition brings control. It’s time to take control of public education.