For years I’ve heard the lament from college professors that the public school graduates they teach are incapable of understanding or executing higher level mathematics. I’d heard the comment that while the mathematical knowledge of public school graduates had been declining for 30 years, about 15 years ago the bottom really dropped out. I’d read this same sad story in article after article and in public statements from all over the country. I’d even read an letter from a mathematics professor at Johns Hopkins who’d given his first year students a simple quiz with a handful of basic arithmetic problems that they had to solve without a calculator. Only a small percentage of his students passed the test, and those who failed generally struggled in college and had a higher drop out rate than those who passed.
Perhaps I was naive or playing the hide your head in the sand game we all play when it comes to our children. See, while I’d read these frighteningly similar stories from all over the country, I hadn’t read a single one from a professor at a Virginia school. All we hear in Virginia is how great our schools are and how strong our Standard of Learning are, and since no one from Virginia’s higher education community was complaining about the ignorance of our high school graduates, I smugly read these articles and contemplated how lucky I was to live in Virginia, where our high school graduates aren’t the dolts we find in the rest of the nation.
As Proverbs says, “Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall” or as Homer Simpson says, “D’oh!”
A few weeks ago I had a Homer Simpson moment. I was reading yet another article bemoaning the poor quality of mathematical preparedness of high school graduates by yet another college professor, when I stumbled across this line:
Ten years ago I could still get most of them up to speed by demanding better work (these are the bright ones, remember Virginia Tech), but this year the old goals are simply impossible for many of them. I tell them “if you are an English major I will give partial and extra credit, drop bad scores, and grade on a curve, but if you are an engineer you actually need to be able to do this.” Ten years ago this was motivation to do better; this year it is a hint that they should switch majors.
At Virginia Tech? Wait!! I went to Virginia Tech. And Virginia Teach only accepts Virginia’s best and brightest, especially in their highly competitive Engineering Program, and most of their students are from Virginia public schools. Was this professor saying that Virginia’s public school graduates are the same dolts I’d been reading and hearing about from all over the country?
Yep. He sure was. The author is a professor of mathematics at Virginia Tech, one of Virginia’s premier higher education institutions and one whose student population is predominately from Virginia’s public schools. Dr Quinn is on the front lines observing the rotten fruits of our Virginia public schools. His article, casually referred to as Tech Killer, is titiled THE REFORM CURRICULUM IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE FOR HIGH-TECH CAREERS, begins as follows – and remember – these are Virginia students he’s talking about here.
We are producing fewer well-prepared scientists and engineers than our universities and high-tech industries need, and make up the difference with people from China, eastern Europe, etc. Many come to the US for advanced training, and they dominate elite graduate programs because Americans can’t compete. They aren’t smarter than Americans, just better prepared. But having our universities and high-tech industries dependent on a steady flow of well-educated foreigners (the “educational parasite” strategy) is dangerous in the long run.
Dr Quinn’s article is a must read. We’re at a crossroads in education right now. Virginia, and the nation, whether we like it or not, are moving towards a one-size fits all approach to mathematics instruction enabled through dumbed down standards and assessments that are laughably simplistic. And yes, I mean the Virginia Standards of Learning and Assessments and the Common Core. Our Department of Education has so thoroughly embraced reform based curricula that calculators are required in kindergarten, and the results are frightening. The net effect of these dumbed down expectations is high school graduates who are unable to compete for high-tech careers.
Our Virginia public schools are failing our Virginia children. Dr Quinn has seen the evidence of those failures first hand in his classrooms. Things are bad now, and they will only be getting worse. If we really want to save our public schools, and give our children a chance, we need to change what we expect of our students and how we teach math, starting by getting rid of the calculators until high school at the earliest. That starts by admitting that the one sized fits all reform based programs the VA DOE and Virginia schools have embraced are not working.
The people with the power to effect change in the VA DOE are not necessarily aware of the problems in our public schools. It’s up to you to make them aware. You ought to read Dr Quinn’s article, and sent it to your state Representative and Senator to educate them.