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22nd December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 22, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

To much fanfare, recently a group that you probably never heard of, the National Center on Education and the Economy, issued a study titled “Tough Choices, Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce,” so named, presumably, so you don’t confuse it with the long-forgotten work of the “old” commission.

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, himself a member of this “new” commission, were set to fly down to Washington for the press conference until bad weather cancelled their flight. Yet just a week later, the report seems to have already faded into irrelevance, joining hundreds of other tomes gathering dust. Maybe we should stop issuing reports and start applying some common sense to fixing our schools.

The new commission, top-heavy with politicos, educrats, and the obligatory representative from Columbia Teachers College, wrings its collective hands over the fact that American students are not keeping up with those in Third World countries. They propose a drastic top to bottom overhaul of the structure of the education system.

What the new commission doesn’t get is that the problem with American education is not its structure, but its content. They use the example of the Indian engineer, earning $7,500 a year as opposed to the $45,000 for his American counterpart. “If we succeed in matching the very high levels of mastery of mathematics and science of these Indian engineers — an enormous challenge for this country — why would the world’s employers pay us more than they have to pay the Indians to do their work?”

Right off the bat the commission asks the wrong question. Rather, they should be asking how a Third World country manages to meet the “enormous challenge” of educating that engineer with the meager resources presumably available to them. How is it that the Indian engineer can achieve “very high levels of mastery of mathematics and science,” while America’s ability to reach the same goal, despite the enormous resources we are pouring into our schools, is under question?

I suspect that the Indian student on his way to engineering school is educated in much the same way that American children were a generation ago. That is certainly the case with math education. In India and many Third World countries, notably Singapore, which has become the world leader in mathematics instruction, there is a traditional approach. Here in America, we have been promoting “constructivist” or “fuzzy” math, which values getting the wrong result in a creative way above getting the correct answer.

It has become so clear that this strategy has been disastrous — American performance on international math evaluations is sinking like a stone — that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which spearheaded the imposition of this constructivist claptrap 17 years ago, has recently turned away from it.

Meanwhile, millions of American children have been wrongly educated and continue to learn through this discredited approach. And this is taking place now here. When Chancellor Klein “reformed” the system, he correctly noted that there was no uniform way of teaching math in the city’s schools. He then imposed fuzzy math as the standard in New York City schools in 2003. That is where we are today.

It is ironic that an immigrant child from India will have been taught math more rigorously in New Delhi than in New York. Rather than serving on these commissions, Mr. Klein would better serve our children if he were to institute an emergency program to eliminate the constructivist math curriculum and restore traditional math instruction to all New York schools by the beginning of the next school year. This can be done. There is an off-the-shelf program called Singapore Math, which is a lot like the math most of us were taught.

What that would accomplish would go a lot further toward making the future graduates of New York’s public schools truly competitive in the global marketplace. For it is what is taught in the classroom and how it is taught that will fix the schools. We have wasted decades on structural change as we lowered instructional standards.

The report of the new commission is like a SIMS game, where one can create an entire new world from scratch on one’s computer. But we live in the real world, not a pretend world. We will not radically alter the entire structure of American education, simply because our federal system assigns that power to the 50 states, not to the national government in Washington.

Nor will competition alone change things, so long as most schools walk in lockstep using the failed pedagogy imposed by the real monopoly behind American education today — the colleges that train our teachers.

Teach children to read exclusively using the scientifically validated approaches of phonics and direct instruction, return to traditional math instruction, eliminate bilingual education for all but the oldest immigrant students, and reintegrate content learning into our classrooms. Let’s get back to basics, the one thing all of these reports conveniently ignore. That’s what Mayor Bloomberg promised us. There is still a chance for a course correction. That is the message behind the cancelled flight to Washington.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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