Secretary of Education Discussion 4: Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts

Carol Broos is one of twelve teachers who have been invited to participate in a round table discussion concerning the direction of education with the new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Jan 21. She was sent five questions in preparation for the meeting. This is the fourth one:

What should the new administration do to increase student engagement in mathematics, the sciences and the arts?

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Kids are all smart. It’s the system that’s stupid

This is not going to be a popular essay. In fact, I will probably get in a bit of hot water by writing it. But, I have a problem with people degrading the public education system while wondering why our students can’t compete with students from other nations even though we spend more on education then any other nation on our planet.


‘Time’ magazine has a photo of a student who the article states is one of three that will not graduate. The article blames the system because they imply the organization is pushing underachievers out. As a teacher over the past quarter of a century it is obvious it is not the teachers or the students fault. It is the system’s fault for making public education more of a social program than one involved in education.


It seems as though this is all I read about, watch on television, and even hear on the streets. Everyone states we have a problem with our education system but no one gives any kind of a rationale solution.


I do not pretend to have the answers. I do not have the background or the certifications to be considered an expert. I have been teaching since 1980, and in this time have experienced degradation in the product of students we graduate. In other words, I do not have a PhD in education or have written any books on the topic. I am only a teacher who loves his profession and am worried about the future of my students and my nation.


I found a speech by Pascal D. Forgione who was the Commissioner of Education Statistics. The following information concerned the academic failure of American schools. He used math and science as the common basis for comparing American schools to the rest of the world. I found the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study that involved a half-million students in 41 countries. The results of this study are not good.


In Mathematics the score of our 4th graders were strong. This group scored a 545 with the average being 529. In fact, the United States placed 12th out of the 26 countries taking part in the study. The 8th grade students lost quite a bit of ground. They scored 500 with the mean score being 513. These students ranked 19th out of 41 nations involved in the study. By 12th grade our student scored 461 with the mean score being 500. These students placed 19th out of 21 nations. This shows an obvious drop in the competence of our students from 4th to 12th grade. The question here has to be why?


In Science the trend continued. The score of our 4th graders was good. They scored 565 with the mean score being 524. The United States was 3rd out of 26 nations involved in the study. By 8th grade the students scored 534 with a mean score of 516. This group of students placed 17 out of 41 nations in the study. Then the 12th grade test results dropped to the point they scored 480 with a mean score of 500. This group of students ranked 16 out of 21.


The study goes on to rank some nations of the world according to Advanced Mathematics and Science. This was the most terrifying statistic that will probably change the future of our nation. We will not be the most technological nation of the world. We will become subservient to other nations. I find this distressing.


In Advanced Mathematics our nation’s students placed 15 out of 16 nations taking part in the study. Their score was 442 with a mean score of 501. In Advanced Science our nation’s students placed 16 out of 16 nations with a score of 423. The average score of the 16 nations taking part in the study was 501. Too many of our students concentrate on how to use math rather than how to do math.



Now let’s discuss some possible reasons for these results. Before I attempt this let me make something perfectly clear. Our young men and women are as talented as any other peoples of the world. They all dream of a wonderful future and they all hope to become part of something that will make a difference in our world. I am proud and have been proud of every one of them who passed through my classrooms. I don’t think they are the problem. The system is what keeps our students down.


Jean McLaughlin, president of Barry University stated it best. “The public schools lack focus; instead of concentrating on education, they dabble in social re-engineering.” The superintendent of our nation’s fourth largest school district in Miami-Dade, Florida reiterated Ms. McLaughlin concept by stating, “Half our job is education, and the other half is social work”.


Anyone involved in education knows the amount of social programs being shoved down the throats of our teachers belittles the primary purpose of what the teacher is supposed to do. A science teacher should not have to worry if one of his students doesn’t understand a concept because they are more of a visual learner instead of a student who can understand abstract ideas. I am not saying the teacher shouldn’t attempt to help all of his or her students but the powers have to understand that everyone is not going to end up to be a brain surgeon. To place all students in all classes, no matter of their level of understanding, does not work. All it does is eliminate the possibility of bringing the students to a higher understanding of concept because the class has to slow down in order to have all the students remain at the same level.


President Bush’s program of No Child Left Behind and education programs such as Brain-Based Learning and Differentiated Learning place the teachings of science and math on the back burner. It seems we are more interested in entertaining our students or training them in social skills then we are in preparing them to compete with the rest of the world.


Mandated programs such as IDEA, which stands for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was originally passed in 1975 and was reauthorized in 2004, has students referred to Special Education teachers if they might have a disability that is interfering with his or her learning. If the ‘team’ determines the student might have a disability, an Individual Education Plan is developed that spells out the educational goals for each child.



This program is a good one. But, if the program starts to overwhelm the capacity of a teacher to teach his or her subject because the number of ‘IEP’s’ increase throughout the school then we begin to teach to the disability instead of to the subject. The numbers of IEP’s are also being complimented by students who have 504’s. This program is a tangent program of special education in order to have the curriculum and methods of teaching changed in order to accommodate the child. The concept that the student is responsible for his or her own learning has been eliminated. It is now the responsibility of the teacher to prove how he or she can educate all levels of students regardless of their ability. The disabled student is not hurt in the process. The talented students are left to fend for themselves.


The largest deficits are found in the area of curricula. In most countries, the middle school student is shifted from basic arithmetic and elementary science to chemistry, physics, algebra, and geometry. The United States students are relegated to review arithmetic, Earth, and life science. This is because some students do not have the capacity to understand the more abstract math and science disciplines. Our present system states that all students have to be given the same opportunity even though all students do not have the same ability. Again, the not-so-talented students are protected while our most talented students are left behind.


There are many other reasons why our students are being overcome by foreign students. In many ways teachers are a problem. Among the teachers of biology and life science 31 % do not have a minor in biology. Among high school physical science teachers 55 % do not have a minor in their subject area. Too much attention by our teachers on social re-engineering instead of subject areas is adding to our student’s deficits.


In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, in their report, “A Nation at Risk” stated the present education system continues to imperil our economy by failing miserably at preparing the workforce. If this trend continues industry will look for their talent overseas. One of its more ironic passages state,” The world’s greatest concentration of PhD’s is in Seoul, Korea and half of Americans can’t even find Seoul on a map.”


This report goes on to state that unless we re-tool education, there is a strong likelihood that America will get overtaken in education the way we did in automobiles. Hell, this has already happened. One of the simplest ways to strengthen our public education system is to adopt teaching methods from countries at the top of the list. The Japanese did this after World War I by copying the German Army and the British Navy. Maybe it is our turn to do some copying.


Principal Lois Lindahl in Miami, Florida said it best. “Children will perform to the level of your expectations”. I, and many like me, believe it is time to raise those expectations with the concept we can’t make all of our students succeed in the same way.
Kids are all smart. It’s the system that’s stupid

This is not going to be a popular essay. In fact, I will probably get in a bit of hot water by writing it. But, I have a problem with people degrading the public education system while wondering why our students can’t compete with students from other nations even though we spend more on education then any other nation on our planet.


‘Time’ magazine has a photo of a student who the article states is one of three that will not graduate. The article blames the system because they imply the organization is pushing underachievers out. As a teacher over the past quarter of a century it is obvious it is not the teachers or the students fault. It is the system’s fault for making public education more of a social program than one involved in education.


It seems as though this is all I read about, watch on television, and even hear on the streets. Everyone states we have a problem with our education system but no one gives any kind of a rationale solution.


I do not pretend to have the answers. I do not have the background or the certifications to be considered an expert. I have been teaching since 1980, and in this time have experienced degradation in the product of students we graduate. In other words, I do not have a PhD in education or have written any books on the topic. I am only a teacher who loves his profession and am worried about the future of my students and my nation.


I found a speech by Pascal D. Forgione who was the Commissioner of Education Statistics. The following information concerned the academic failure of American schools. He used math and science as the common basis for comparing American schools to the rest of the world. I found the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study that involved a half-million students in 41 countries. The results of this study are not good.


In Mathematics the score of our 4th graders were strong. This group scored a 545 with the average being 529. In fact, the United States placed 12th out of the 26 countries taking part in the study. The 8th grade students lost quite a bit of ground. They scored 500 with the mean score being 513. These students ranked 19th out of 41 nations involved in the study. By 12th grade our student scored 461 with the mean score being 500. These students placed 19th out of 21 nations. This shows an obvious drop in the competence of our students from 4th to 12th grade. The question here has to be why?


In Science the trend continued. The score of our 4th graders was good. They scored 565 with the mean score being 524. The United States was 3rd out of 26 nations involved in the study. By 8th grade the students scored 534 with a mean score of 516. This group of students placed 17 out of 41 nations in the study. Then the 12th grade test results dropped to the point they scored 480 with a mean score of 500. This group of students ranked 16 out of 21.


The study goes on to rank some nations of the world according to Advanced Mathematics and Science. This was the most terrifying statistic that will probably change the future of our nation. We will not be the most technological nation of the world. We will become subservient to other nations. I find this distressing.


In Advanced Mathematics our nation’s students placed 15 out of 16 nations taking part in the study. Their score was 442 with a mean score of 501. In Advanced Science our nation’s students placed 16 out of 16 nations with a score of 423. The average score of the 16 nations taking part in the study was 501. Too many of our students concentrate on how to use math rather than how to do math.



Now let’s discuss some possible reasons for these results. Before I attempt this let me make something perfectly clear. Our young men and women are as talented as any other peoples of the world. They all dream of a wonderful future and they all hope to become part of something that will make a difference in our world. I am proud and have been proud of every one of them who passed through my classrooms. I don’t think they are the problem. The system is what keeps our students down.


Jean McLaughlin, president of Barry University stated it best. “The public schools lack focus; instead of concentrating on education, they dabble in social re-engineering.” The superintendent of our nation’s fourth largest school district in Miami-Dade, Florida reiterated Ms. McLaughlin concept by stating, “Half our job is education, and the other half is social work”.


Anyone involved in education knows the amount of social programs being shoved down the throats of our teachers belittles the primary purpose of what the teacher is supposed to do. A science teacher should not have to worry if one of his students doesn’t understand a concept because they are more of a visual learner instead of a student who can understand abstract ideas. I am not saying the teacher shouldn’t attempt to help all of his or her students but the powers have to understand that everyone is not going to end up to be a brain surgeon. To place all students in all classes, no matter of their level of understanding, does not work. All it does is eliminate the possibility of bringing the students to a higher understanding of concept because the class has to slow down in order to have all the students remain at the same level.


President Bush’s program of No Child Left Behind and education programs such as Brain-Based Learning and Differentiated Learning place the teachings of science and math on the back burner. It seems we are more interested in entertaining our students or training them in social skills then we are in preparing them to compete with the rest of the world.


Mandated programs such as IDEA, which stands for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was originally passed in 1975 and was reauthorized in 2004, has students referred to Special Education teachers if they might have a disability that is interfering with his or her learning. If the ‘team’ determines the student might have a disability, an Individual Education Plan is developed that spells out the educational goals for each child.



This program is a good one. But, if the program starts to overwhelm the capacity of a teacher to teach his or her subject because the number of ‘IEP’s’ increase throughout the school then we begin to teach to the disability instead of to the subject. The numbers of IEP’s are also being complimented by students who have 504’s. This program is a tangent program of special education in order to have the curriculum and methods of teaching changed in order to accommodate the child. The concept that the student is responsible for his or her own learning has been eliminated. It is now the responsibility of the teacher to prove how he or she can educate all levels of students regardless of their ability. The disabled student is not hurt in the process. The talented students are left to fend for themselves.


The largest deficits are found in the area of curricula. In most countries, the middle school student is shifted from basic arithmetic and elementary science to chemistry, physics, algebra, and geometry. The United States students are relegated to review arithmetic, Earth, and life science. This is because some students do not have the capacity to understand the more abstract math and science disciplines. Our present system states that all students have to be given the same opportunity even though all students do not have the same ability. Again, the not-so-talented students are protected while our most talented students are left behind.


There are many other reasons why our students are being overcome by foreign students. In many ways teachers are a problem. Among the teachers of biology and life science 31 % do not have a minor in biology. Among high school physical science teachers 55 % do not have a minor in their subject area. Too much attention by our teachers on social re-engineering instead of subject areas is adding to our student’s deficits.


In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, in their report, “A Nation at Risk” stated the present education system continues to imperil our economy by failing miserably at preparing the workforce. If this trend continues industry will look for their talent overseas. One of its more ironic passages state,” The world’s greatest concentration of PhD’s is in Seoul, Korea and half of Americans can’t even find Seoul on a map.”


This report goes on to state that unless we re-tool education, there is a strong likelihood that America will get overtaken in education the way we did in automobiles. Hell, this has already happened. One of the simplest ways to strengthen our public education system is to adopt teaching methods from countries at the top of the list. The Japanese did this after World War I by copying the German Army and the British Navy. Maybe it is our turn to do some copying.


Principal Lois Lindahl in Miami, Florida said it best. “Children will perform to the level of your expectations”. I, and many like me, believe it is time to raise those expectations with the concept we can’t make all of our students succeed in the same way.
Indeed, students perform to the level of expectations. If we have low expectations, we'll get low achievement. This has been proven over and over -- along with the finding that changing the expectations changes the achievement. What a surprise.

A second point: on the decline in US ranking in TIMSS, as we progress from 4th to 12th grade, one very obvious candidate is promoting kids to the next grade when they haven't achieved satisfactory progress. Some teachers I've spoken with recently are required by their districts to give no grade lower than C, and to move students to the next grade regardless of their performance. If we move them on when they aren't prepared, of course they won't do well. If we lower expectations a bit, to balance this, then we have all the students who performed well getting bored and goofing off.

Schools that promote students based on achievement rather than age have a better chance of getting all students to the same endpoint. Some will get there sooner than others. Some will advance in one subject faster than in another subject. But that's OK. It still works.

Why not get rid of grade levels and switch to complexity levels?
I would sign for each word said by James in his blog .

NMC
To increase student engagement in mathematics, the sciences and the arts let's first establish how old is the child.
I think it's as crazy to require an elementary school child to learn about cells as it is to teach the multiplication table to a high school students.
We all are required to learn the stages of child development as a part of our Master's or even Bachelor's Programs and then when we have to apply what we learned in real classrooms the curricula given to us does not apply such elementary and fundamental knowledge.
Elementary school teachers are forced to teach middle school science and math topics, while the high school teachers have to reteach the same topics often using the same methods to their bored and unmotivated students. If you look at the content of the standardized tests for elementary school kids and for the high school ones you will see the same problems and the same questions. 12 years in a raw of the same staff. I would be bored and unmotivated too.
Let's discuss the content of the standardized tests not the fact that they are there. How long ago have you tried to do one of those tests and compare what's required of a 4th grader and the 9th grader?
Probability does not belong in the 4th grade test by placing it there you killed this topic for the rest of the child schooling. Same about cells, astronomy, geography (other than the local), biology (other than local concrete: plants and animal that live in the area) etc. Anything global belongs in the middle and even high school. This is where abstraction begins.
I believe this is the core mistake made in the American education, it's more noticeable in science and math, but it is made in History too.
Oh, sorry, I forgot about the Scientific Method :) It took me, adult person, some time to realize what it is :) and what I really have to teach. I never teach it the way it is required by the curriculum because the poor kids can only memorize the list of steps they will never understand it the way it is presented by all science textbooks. The scientific method can be taught by application not by memorizing the steps. Last year I succeeded with 12th grade Forensic Science Class, but it took a whole year. We practiced the observation as an activity, questioning as an activity, we tried to guess who was the murderer (later I explained to them that it was our first Hypothesis), while we excluded different suspects we were coming up with different hypothesis. Setting an experiment took the entire spring term. It's too abstract term even to high school kids. I do not understand why the elementary school teachers are forced to teach the Scientific Method with ALL its steps.
...especially when most fields of science don't even use the Scientific Method. It's used in Ecology, but not at all in biochemistry.

What all of the sciences do, though, is obtain data / observations, ponder them, and then figure out what they tell us. Oddly, we don't find this in very many lesson plans, at any level. Even the FOSS system skips it. Classroom inquiry is more likely to have the kids explore something, then report what they did. They might write their data in their Science Notebook, but that's usually where the lesson ends. For a lot of lessons, some from FOSS, some from online archives, I have a very hard time figuring out what they are trying to teach. They might be better than the "memorize the names of the parts of a cell" type of thing (yawn) but science lessons need to go somewhere. The data / observations should be important stuff for the kids to ponder, and figure out what's going on.

It's not hard. Kids do this intuitively in their daily lives. So do adults. Besides, making sense of the findings is the fun part.
:) that happens when the teacher does not have a clear idea of what he/she is really trying to teach and the topic is forced on her/him by out-of-license curriculum. I observed this kind of "lessons" in my kids' elementary school, when the teacher was forced to teach Scientific Method to second graders.
I just believe that to keep them interested we have to adjust the material they are learning to the level of their development and keep the assignment at the top level.
I have to tell you that I hardly ever met a "bad" teacher who is writing bad lesson plans. Absolute majority of teachers are doing the best job they can and always try to improve. Bad lesson plans come out of 2 reasons: somebody is trying to artificially convert a traditional lesson into inquiry lesson and it doesn't work right away (it works after a while); or somebody other than the teacher doing the same thing without understanding the main point of the topic (this one will never work and will mislead the students).
It's not hard, but it requires effort, time, and testing on live students :) some of our attempts don't work :) Maybe if we had a chance to work it out on each other we could improve those poor lesson plans.
I can speak only for the arts as that is my area of focus, although I hope people with experience in other fields will be able to find something useful in my remarks.

We should look to the experience of organizations like El Sistema with their amazing orchestra program and to current research which shows that people enjoy the arts more when they have more information (historical context, names and dates of compositions, whether artistic or musical).

But the fundamental thing we need to change about the arts is our philosophy that the arts are a luxury, not a necessity. In fact, and again, I speak only to my specialized knowledge, music is being shown to be an essential tool for brain development that has implications for language, reasoning, mathematics, and many other fields. I'm sure this applies to other arts as well.

I have aggregated a substantial amount of research on my blog, including some subjects in particular:
El Sistema in Scotland
The Real Cost of a Music Education
Music and the Schools
El Sistema in Venezuela

You can also look at the keywords list on the blog for numerous posts in academics, education, and under those for reading, math, etc. My blog is not supported by advertising and 90% + of the posts are research study summaries from peer-reviewed scientific journals.

I hope you will find these research studies useful and informative.
Teachers and students are focused on tests. Life does not hand out booklets to read and answer questions. Life is a journey of projects and drama resulting from inquiry; bring that in the classroom, and you have engagement -- technology is a must. Check out these examples, most of which integrate math, science, language arts and the arts:

Nature-Mapping in Washington State
http://www.edutopia.org/toad-tracking

Just some of the many learning units by NASA
http://teacherlink.ed.usu.edu/tlnasa/units/index.html

National Geographic Xpeditions
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/

Seasonal Forests from Discovery Education
http://www.discoveryeducation.com/GettingStarted/pdf/science/PLANET...
There is one little kink in those comparative statistics.

Let preface my comments. My son just returned from a 2 year period in Japan as an English Speaking Teacher. During that time he worked at various schools in different cities and neighborhoods.
He discovered that there is social prejudice among the Japanese populations based on the genetic cultural history of the student. This is essentially a caste system that predisposes a student to a better or lesser school. The students whose last names imply an agricultural heritage are not allowed to attend the better schools that lead to higher education opportunities.
Now, Lets look at a school in a poor European Country's neighborhood. You know, the places wherre you are advised not to visit on vacation.
I'll bet, that the school results acquired from other countries are "SELECT", prime cut so to speak. the "lesser" school's performance are not quite included in the data. "Gee!, Ya know, it was on my desk, but I never got to enter it into the computer"
These are then compared to the results from our open and honest public school system.

Before we compare ourselves to the merits of other countries, we should really take a close look at their data collection methods. Not, just accept it because it makes us look bad....I am suspect of any comparative data that is negative toward the US.

In our country, every child is entitled to an education. Not every school is as good as every other. BUT! We try, we offer an opportunity for everyone to suceed.....not just the cultural elite.

Prejudice exists in all cultures, it is discrete and acccepted, everywhere...except in the United States.

JJC
Hi, John!
This discussion is not followed from the end of January. I think you are right!
The trouble is that the opportunity which is given is not taken by a lot of students. As it was pointed by one English child psychologist ,nobody knows why a natural curiosity disappears at a certain age, but it looks like some people have it forever.

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