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Designer education, deplorable results

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My students at the tech school came back from their first semester math final indignant as all get-out, muttering and complaining at full throttle about how hard it was.

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Not all of them, you should understand, because some of them just stood there in quiet satisfaction with their individual results. They'd done their homework, understood what it was during the semester they were supposed to learn, and maybe just had a better background in their high school math.

The ages of those complaining ran all the way from 18 years old to mid-30s, a common range of age these days in the technical schools across the country. In other words, it wasn't just the older ones, or just the younger ones, but a cross sampling of both, which amounted to about two-thirds of the class.

I didn't say much. Once in a while I would look at them and finish a sentence which begins, "I wish you didn't..." Using that format seems to convince them that I have some sympathy with their plight, and yet doesn't express criticism of the math teacher or his content.

They may think I have some sympathy for their plight. I don't. At my age, I can say that I came through our school system back when nobody thought any of my education was supposed to be fun; back before we decided there should be "easy" math in the K-12 system, and "hard" math. Sure, they called it college prep, or introduction to math, or something else, but the bottom line was that we began making things easier for students.

It's not clear to me which came first in our educational dysfunction, the easiness? Or the student unlearningness? Whatever. Since the early 1960s, education has become fashion, and as such, has changed almost as much as bell bottoms and bobby socks.

Some of this has happened because all of our K-12 systems are "independent" systems. They are independent systems because the original federal government yielded a great deal of control of education to the states, and the states in turn passed that on to the schools. There may be instances of multiple entities all managing to pull for the common good of their constituents, but I do not know of one.

Let me put it like this. Take the Ford Motor Company. Take away their leadership, their headquarters, their design teams, their engineers at headquarters -- all of those people. Say to the Ford Motor Company, "You're going to let each dealer use their independent interpretation of what kind and style of car to manufacture."

Picture that for a moment. It doesn't take much thinking to understand that such an approach will not work. Nor is it working with education. We have 15,000 independent school districts in the U.S. That would be 15,000 variations on the Ford car. It may not be quite that many variations on, for example, high school algebra, but it would be -- and is -- quite a few.

In a recent survey of just 30 high schools, 270 different high school math courses were offered. It's almost like someone held a contest to see how many different names and contents could be derived. Math Junior, Transitional Math, Alternative Math, Vocational Math, Life Math. That means many, many different textbooks, and that means not only lower results, but higher costs for those lower results.

How about this one: Death Math. It would be aptly named because, as far as the world is concerned, we're dead in the water compared to them. A recent survey asked a lot of our citizens where we ranked regarding many topics. For example, where do we rank world-wide on engineering, innovation, mathematics, science, etc.

They all said number one.

In fact, we're not number one at anything. Well, that's not quite true: We're number one at thinking we're number one.

Just to make you feel even dumber, here are three nations who are outdoing us in their overall education, not just math, of their young: Singapore, South Korea and Finland.

What that means is: It's not a matter of wealth, or natural resources, or teacher intelligence, or funding; it is instead a matter of everyone on the same page, doing the same thing, using the same books, all across the educational area. These three countries -- and many, many others -- have done this in about the last 40 years, come from nothing to where they are now, way ahead of us. They don't argue about 270 different math textbooks. They're not "independent" school districts. Instead, they've adopted across-the-board philosophies about their goals and content, learned through repetition how to measure the success of those goals and content, and allowed teachers too to learn by repetition how best to make that common content work.

Interestingly enough, I've just come from a meeting at the tech school. We were just told by MnSCU -- Minnesota State Schools and Universities -- that we are changing our requirements for math for all diplomas and certificated courses. I will no longer, or so it appears at this early stage of notification, have to require my students to take a math course.

I understand, when I watch some student use a calculator to multiply three times nine, what it feels like to just want to give up. That doesn't mean we should.

We're 23rd in the world at math.

But I'll bet we're first in the number of educational fashion changes.

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