BECAUSE our children, unlike many in the world, enjoy numerous paths to a privileged existence, we may be unaware of a burgeoning educational crisis.
The recent economic downturn has laid bare weaknesses in our educational system, exposing an insidious need for remediation, particularly in mathematics and science.
Of course, American students, as a group, have demonstrated relatively mediocre performance in these subjects for years.
Coincidentally, learning mathematics is about to get harder, and the cost of remediation, more expensive, as our educational bubble bursts.
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One problem is that school districts consistently end up short of highly qualified mathematics and science teachers. Recurrent annual tuition increases, 10 percent or so, have made paying for college debilitating. Inflation-adjusted tuition rates are now roughly four times higher than a generation ago.
USA Today reported that two-thirds of 2011 college graduates average $26,000 in loan debt, even though they work more to avoid it, a practice that depletes study time and compromises program completion. An expected $35,000 starting salary sparks dark humor among my students who plan to become teachers.
Predictably, the five-year attrition rate among new teachers approaches 30 percent with first-year attrition rates rising, as committed and experienced baby boomers retire.
These factors drive a vicious cycle. Students learn far less from ill-equipped science and mathematics teachers, so they do not perform well in those subjects. In turn, they do not aspire to enter science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields, so fewer apt students become STEM teachers (or engineers or scientists).
The new Common Core standards, recently adopted in Washington and in 44 other states, bring hope. In particular, these standards set the bar higher for elementary, middle-school and secondary mathematics. In response, educators at all levels are struggling to beef up their programs.
This reform effort seems comparatively well-choreographed. The new standards are thoughtfully crafted, clear, coherent and much more rigorous than the old model. Furthermore, nationwide adoption could upgrade mathematics education in the U.S., if we can create good teachers and keep them happy.
Under the new standards parents will not want their children to fall behind anywhere on the trail to college. Catching up will be more difficult, and the cost of remediation will be higher.
Colleges will tack weighty developmental-course surcharges onto students’ tuition bills, but developmental programs will continue to suck in students like the Hotel California.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 24 percent of first-year college students check into developmental-mathematics programs, but they may never leave with adequate skills. If they repeat courses, they repay.
Researcher Clifford Adelman, in an oft-cited report “Remediation, the Kiss of Death,” suggested that students are 11 percent less likely to graduate from college by age 30 if they take one remedial course, 23 percent less likely if they take two courses, and 30 percent less likely if they take three or four developmental courses.
More positively, Adelman found that the rigor of a high-school curriculum was the best predictor of college graduation. Specifically, the highest level of mathematics passed in high school was the best single predictor of college graduation.
Every mathematics course taken above the level of Algebra II more than doubled students’ odds of earning a college diploma.
The Common Core standards promise to set the rigor bar higher, but we must make sure our children have high-quality STEM programs, qualified teachers and involved parents.
As a mathematics educator, I have a wish list. I wish parents would take more time helping their children learn to solve problems — any problems. (It isn’t a problem if they know how to solve them immediately.)
I wish parents would teach their children how to be persistent, detail-oriented artists when they write, speak and when they solve problems, to see that reflection and revision impart value to any project.
This, perhaps more than any expensive fix, would keep our children off the remedial track, where the train moves slowly, costs more and breaks down often.
Michael A. Lundin is professor of mathematics at Central Washington University.