Sunshine Is Still The Best Disinfectant

by Robert Pondiscio
August 6th, 2008

There are several important threads — the need for national standards and assessments; rethinking the difference between a highly qualified teacher and a highly effective one — at the ongoing NCLB discussion at NewTalk. But one comment raised by CK Board member Diane Ravitch jumps out:

My own preference would be for Congress to authorize national testing (à la NAEP), based on coherent curriculum standards, but without stakes or sanctions. The federal role should be to provide accurate information about student performance. It should be left to states and districts to devise sanctions and reforms. These jurisdictions are closer to the schools and likelier to come up with workable reforms. If states and localities don’t want to improve their schools, then we are in deeper trouble as a nation than any law passed by Congress can fix.

We assume accountability needs teeth to be truly enforceable, but Diane is right — an apples to apples comparison of how schools fare against each other seems likely to pour more sunshine onto what’s really happening than 50 states racing each other to the bottom by lowering proficiency standards. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest.

The Innumeracy of Intellectuals

by Robert Pondiscio
August 6th, 2008

Given my line of work, this doesn’t rise to the level of a liability, but it’s awkward. I’m a professor at a liberal arts college, putting me solidly in the “Intellectual” class, and there’s a background assumption that anyone with as much education as I have will know something about history and philosophy and literature and art and classical music….On those occasions when I’m forced to admit my ignorance (or, worse yet, the fact that I don’t even like classical music), my colleagues tend to look a little sideways at me, and I can feel myself drop slightly in their estimation. Not knowing anything about those subjects makes me less of an Intellectual to most people in the academy.

Alas, it’s a one-way street. Intellectuals in the humanities don’t look askance at those who confess an ignorance of math or science. In fact, it’s something of a badge of honor. “Students seeking to avoid math or science classes can expect to get a sympathetic hearing from much of the academy,” Orzel writes, “where the grousing of physics majors is written off as whining by nerds who badly need to expand their narrow minds.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the lack of respect for math and science is one of the largest unacknowledged problems in today’s society. And it starts in the academy — somehow, we have moved to a place where people can consider themselves educated while remaining ignorant of remarkably basic facts of math and science. If I admit an ignorance of art or music, I get sideways looks, but if I argue for taking a stronger line on math and science requirements, I’m being unreasonable. The arts are essential, but Math Is Hard, and I just need to accept that not everybody can handle it.

“It simply should not be acceptable for people who are ignorant of math and science to consider themselves Intellectuals,” Orzel concludes. “Somehow, we need to move away from where we are and toward a place where confusing Darwin with Dawkins or Feynman with Faraday carries the same intellectual stigma as confusing Bach with Beethoven or Rembrandt with Reubens.”