At Teacher in a Strange Land, Nancy Flanagan tells a fascinating story of a Michigan community college that received a big grant to build a wind turbine and create a green energy careers program. Education! 21st century careers! In Michigan, no less. Just where we need to be headed, right? There was just one problem.
“They received over 500 applications. The minimal prerequisite for application was successfully completing Algebra II–but the 16 candidates selected for the prestigious pilot program all had top-flight math coursework credentials, including success in national AP math exams. When they got into the actual hands-on learning in the program, however, the selected students had great difficulty in applying the mathematics content they had aced the previous year.”
In short, these looked-good-on-paper students couldn’t integrate and utilize what they knew. Flanagan sees in this story a problem with what grades and test scores tell us about student preparedness–and a cautionary tale for ed reformers. The disconnect between the students’ credentials and what they could actually do with what they supposedly learned ”can’t be traced back to lack of market-based schooling options, teachers who didn’t get merit pay, or the fact that none of their teachers came from Teach for America,” she notes. “Their troubles are directly tied to curriculum and instruction–the way they learned to ‘be successful’ in math.
“Education wonks and armchair pundits hate this kind of traditionalist thinking. Curriculum and instruction are dull and unsexy, and push wide-scale policy-lever solutions to the periphery of the discourse. This is why we hear lots of pontificating about recruiting and rewarding quality teachers–including those break-the-mold whiz kids who cut their teeth in the country’s toughest classrooms–but almost nothing about consistent, quality teaching.
Flanagan puckishly headlines her story “The Math of Least Resistance,” which is clearly a comment on ed reform’s tendency to take on the “easy” challenges of structures and incentives while ignoring the much harder task of getting curriculum and instruction right. Take the lessons from Flanagan’s fascinating anecdote that you will. But when students that our schools deem successful–those who would almost certainly meet any current definition of “college and career ready”–struggle in situations in which they should have been well-prepared, something’s clearly not right.