kitchen table math, the sequel: Another year, another school board election

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Another year, another school board election

Needless to say, I cannot resist a school board election.

Letter to the editor:

At the September 23, 2013 meeting of the Board of Education, Superintendent Kris Harrison briefed the board on his plan for the district.

His plan is drawn from Tony Wagner’s 2008 opinion piece, “Rigor Redefined,” available here.

Wagner believes the world is changing so rapidly that by the time today’s children reach adulthood, most of the knowledge they learned in school will be obsolete.

Thus the school’s traditional mission of imparting knowledge to a new generation should be subordinated to a new mission: helping students master seven “21st century skills” Wagner claims to have identified. (Wagner spends the second half of his essay denigrating Advanced Placement classes and their teachers.)

Two years later, the superintendent has acted on at least five of Wagner’s seven “skills.” This has had the effect of actually increasing the need for tutors, because teaching knowledge is not the district’s priority. Teaching “21st century skills” is. That’s why we now have flipped classrooms, learning stations in 6th-grade math, children sitting in pods peering at iPads and Chromebooks, guidance counselors ordered not to help students draw up lists of colleges, and a Shark Tank project in the middle school. (The last two innovations fall under skill number 4: “Initiative and Entrepreneurialism.”)

What unifies Wagner’s list of seven “skills” is the absence of knowledge, and that’s the first problem. Cognitive scientists have spent years trying to explain that knowledge stored in long-term memory is different from knowledge stored on Google. To think critically, you need the former. When you think without knowledge, all you’re doing is taking your clich├ęs for a walk.

A second problem: Wagner’s piece was published before the crash. It was wrong then (as a few minutes on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website reveals), but it’s even further off base today. The 21st century Wagner imagined, with its happy, humming global society and its ever-increasing “abundance,” is not the 21st century we got. Our children got world recession and Charlie Hebdo.

But the most important problem is the fact that all of these changes are being made without the consent of the people. No member of the board has expressed enthusiasm for changing the mission of the school to the teaching of 21st century skills, yet three members of the board have allowed the superintendent to proceed.

I hope the next board will have the strength to change course.

Catherine Johnson


lgm said...

Pre-nclb our district was a place of learning for all students. My years in DOD schools were too. With nclb and common core the ban on both enrichment and placing by instructional need means that children of literate parents are not included in most learning, unless they are in a group and peer teaching, or are tutoring during study hall.

My child graduated from public high school ten days ago. His high school offers no honors math or AP Sciences to accel students despite having the typical Hudson Valley population mix with respect to education. I am singing "I'm Done" to the music of "I'm Calm" from Funny Thing Happened...Forum. College feels like an oasis.

Hainish said...

LGM, as a child of ILliterate parents, I can safely say that there were few opportunities for advanced instruction when I was in elementary and middle school all those years ago. (Yes, I was a quick learner despite having parents who didn't speak English or make it past elementary school themselves.) I can only imagine that it would be worse today, but let's not kid ourselves about the past.