In a July 8, 2008 editorial in USA Today, Patrick Welsh, an English teacher in Virginia, looks at our students’ lack of mastery in math and other subjects (http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2008/07/math-meltdown.html).
He points out that seventh grade students are urged to take Algebra I, even though most of them are not ready for it. Researchers in brain development point out that such abstract thinking is possible only after a certain level of maturation, usually after age 12, but often later, especially in boys. Seventh graders are only 12. In today’s world, many of these students are immature indeed because they have spent childhoods in front of televisions and video games. If students whose brains have not matured enough to handle abstraction are forced to study math at this level, they simply cannot master it.
Welsh points out that “math gurus” set the curriculum and standards our students must meet. He took a look at the state standards and just had to laugh. Students graduating from high school must take certain upper-level math courses, although many of them cannot even do basic computation and even lack basic skills such as multiplication. A majority of them cannot read a simple story problem–which is everyday math, the kind most people face throughout their lives–and understand it well enough to tackle it.
Welsh also points out that most student emerge from their high school curricula without knowledge of history, without knowing the dates when things happened, and without enough grammar skills to write correct sentences.
I see the same kinds of things in my little rural district here, although district literacy specialists are working mightily to improve comprehension and writing skills, and there are endless interventions happening in math. The proof comes when students go to college–if they go to college–and there evidence their lack of reading, writing and math skills.
What to do? If we reexamine state standards and rewrite course sequences to fit the realities, surely we will be accused of watering down our students’ educations. We just know that the proponents of the status quo will argue powerfully for keeping “high standards,” but what is the point of these standards, these course requirements, this standard curriculum, if students really don’t get it? They really do not know the math, the grammar, the history.
Why not reexamine course sequences and provide legitimate lower-level courses in math, for credit? Why not revamp the English curriculum to provide more writing, editing, and grammar practice, along with constant immersion in the classics? Why not hit the important concepts in science and the important dates in history just a little harder, just a little more often?
Sure, we can argue that this is lower-level work. But this would be a pointless argument, because it’s the only work that many of our students can do.