WaPo Editorial: It's all about the boring content

First printed on Valerie Strauss' Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet on August 14, 2011. Click here for original.

A 2006 New York Times article described a 4-year-old boy who presented with a persistent fever and brown spots on his skin.  Doctors concluded it was leukemia and ordered a painful round of chemotherapy.  It turned out that the boy did have leukemia, but a rare form that chemotherapy could not cure.  In fact, each round would have weakened the boy further, increasing his risk of death.

Medical misdiagnoses are an inevitable part of medicine.  “Once you start down one of these clinical pathways,” his oncologist explained, “it’s very hard to step off.”

Today, are we witnessing a similar inertia in the conversation surrounding education reform?  Schools are failing.  Students are failing.  There’s no question about that.  But why?  What’s the diagnosis, and is it correct?

One group believes that the problem is teachers.  They think the solution is in removing ineffective teachers from the classroom and hiring better ones to take their place.  They may bemoan unions and support organizations like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, as well as DC Public Schools’ contract that rewards teachers for performance.  For them, the emphasis is on personnel: the who.

Another group points to the underlying structure of school itself: the where.  They argue that traditional public schools lack incentives to improve, and that the answer lies in increased competition through charter schools like KIPP.  Organizations such as the Walton Family Foundation have generously given millions to promote school choice, which makes sense given Wal-Mart’s own experience in the free market.  For them, fixing education is a question of business planning and requires an MBA-type solution.

Finally, a third group believes that the problem is technological and views education more as an engineering challenge.  Each week the excellent newsletter EdSurge features “edupreneurs” from Silicon Valley who are developing online learning platforms like Rocketship, Dreambox and Khan Academy.  This group wants to transform the way students access education: the how.

The who.  The where.  The how.  Collectively these represent the three main diagnoses for what ails education in America.  They’re the narrative.  But are they really the whole problem?

A 2009 Raytheon study found that 20% of eighth graders say they “hate” math, while 61% of middle school students say they’d rather take out the garbage than do their homework.  When you ask why, the answer is simple: they don’t know why they’re learning what they’re learning or how it applies to their lives.  Each morning they open a textbook and calculate a dozen square roots or summarize the causes of the Mexican-American War.  After lunch they conjugate “aburrir” or memorize the differences between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rock.

For students, the problem is not that teachers are ineffective, that schools aren’t accountable or that the textbook is an inefficient technology for delivering content.  Their problem is the content itself.  Students are disengaged because they’re bored, and they’re bored because the material is often irrelevant and meaningless.  For them, the issue is not the who, the where or the how.  It’s the what.

A textbook asks, “You want to find the product of 5 x 215, but the ‘2’ button on your calculator is broken.  How can you use the distributive property and your calculator to find the product?”

In the past decade philanthropic organizations such as the Gates and Annenberg foundations have contributed upwards of $1 billion to improving public education, yet almost all of this has gone towards training teachers, expanding charters and promoting technology: fixing the calculator, but not the question.  Earlier this year a major textbook publisher made news when it announced a pilot program to teach Algebra on the iPad.  Many heralded it as a giant leap for mankind, though you have to wonder: if the content is the same, why do we expect students to react differently?

The who, the where and the how.  These are important.  But for them to be truly effective, we also need to fix the what.

So why haven’t we?  In an era of change, why is content the constant?

Since 2000 the Carnegie Corporation of New York has given almost $100 million to support education reform, and the generosity of this cannot be overstated.  Yet  according to their website, of their 37 staff members, only one has taught in a K12 classroom in the United States.

The reason this matters is that foundations often represent the main source of funding for new educational organizations: the philanthropic equivalent of venture capitalists.  And because they naturally focus on their “core competencies,” their understanding of education effectively determines what gets innovated or, in the case of curriculum, doesn’t.

Of course the obvious question is, “If we train better teachers, won’t they naturally develop better content on their own?”

This makes sense, but it’s not the way teaching works.  First-year teachers are preoccupied dealing with classroom management, calling parents, making seating charts, and figuring out whether they’re supposed to be a friend to their students or an authoritarian.  Even if they have the time, these teachers may not yet have the experience to develop effective content, and therefore default to textbooks that not only fail to support their development but may in fact undermine it.

This is not limited to new teachers.  A 2009 study from New York City highlights the difficulty in staffing classrooms with teachers who are highly qualified in their content areas.  And when teachers aren’t confident in the subject they’re teaching, they have little choice but to rely on textbooks and their silly questions about broken calculator buttons.

Clearly this is a problem, and it’s about to get worse.  For over the next five years more teachers will retire than at any other time in American history.  Meanwhile the new Common Core standards in math have pushed what were once high school topics into middle school.  What this means is that the need to support teachers with effective and engaging content has never been more urgent.  Yet so long as funding organizations continue to overlook the centrality of curriculum, we risk being blinded by the inertia of an incomplete diagnosis.  Not a wrong one, but an incomplete one.

The who.  The where.  The how.  We have to address these pieces of the puzzle.  But we have to address content, too.  For we can hire a generation of enthusiastic teachers, build cathedrals of education and give every student an iPad.  And then what?

And that’s just it.  And then, what.

2 thoughts on “WaPo Editorial: It's all about the boring content”

  1. It's interesting to me that you've missed an important question, one of which leads to some of the variations in education reform you've highlighted.

    Specifically, you've skipped the "why".

    I think if we address the why, we'll find out where many of our real disagreements lie.

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