Should All Students Be Required to Learn Algebra?

Many educators and education policy makers are questioning the value of algebra. Think about how often you hear people comment that they never use algebra and think taking algebra in high school was unnecessary and did nothing more than add stress to their young lives.

Removing algebra as a requirement for graduation from high school would be a decision that requires careful analysis.

One Website offers a definition of Algebra attributed to Syracuse University. It states that Algebra is:

“a branch of mathematics that uses mathematical statements to describe relationships between things that vary overtime.” Continue reading

A Minefield of Distractions or a New Education Model

In a recent exchange on Twitter, I made a comment that “Relationships put teachers in position to teach but too often the process gets in the way. [The] Process can be designed to clear the way, so teachers are always able to seize those moments. The existing education process is a minefield of distractions.”

A good athlete or team will put themselves in a position where they can win a game. That doesn’t mean they win every time, but they give themselves a chance to win. There are no certainties in athletic competitions just as there are no certainties in classroom teaching. In many ways, teaching is like the practice of medicine. Public school teachers and physicians are craftspeople working to apply an uncertain science to help people. Good teachers, like good physicians, are always working to develop their craft and they never run out of things to learn and new things to try.

What I want to spend a few paragraphs discussing is the last part of the sentence, “relationships put teachers in a position to teach but, too often, the process gets in the way.”

For going on six years I have been striving to make the point to public school teachers that the education process within which they work gets in their way. The existing process truly is a minefield of distractions. I have yet to find the correct words to explain myself in a way that resonates with teachers, however.

Public school teachers have been teaching within the same structure and education process for their whole careers. It’s the same education process within which their own teachers had to work and the same one within which their teachers’ teachers had to work. The current education process and structure have become an “unalterable given” in the minds of public school educators and it does not put them in a position to win/teach very often. When it does put them in position, teachers must often make an extraordinary effort to accomplish their objective with a student or class. It is an extraordinary effort of the type that only the most dedicated teachers are inclined to make.

Think about how an operating room is constructed to serve every need of the surgeon. It has been engineered to assure the surgeon has whatever he or she needs, within easy reach. It is designed around the way a surgeon works and thinks and the way they have been trained to react to unexpected events and crises.

One can even see this process of “designing to specifications” on state-of-the-art assembly lines in a manufacturing venue; even to the detail that when the worker needs a cap screw or nut, all they do is turn and reach, knowing it will be there. It is applied ergonomics where the environment and all physical resources are designed and organized to optimize the capability of the physician or production worker.

Why would we not want to create the same work environment for teachers? Is there any job in society more important than teaching? Is there anything in society more important than our children? How would our children grow up to be doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers or other professionals if were not for our teachers?

Teachers work with a population of students that is diverse to the extreme; each student has a unique set of needs and abilities to which the teacher must respond; and each subject area offers multiple strategies to convey content and concepts to their students. Teachers must, however, practice their extraordinarily complex craft within the context of a brittle structure, regimented to the nth degree, following an inflexible set of academic standards, while working within the confines of an arbitrary schedule.

We all understand how important it is for teachers to form close, nurturing relationships with their students, but the education process is not designed in a way that supports teachers and students through that relationship-building activity. There are too many kids for too few teachers with too little time, and no backup systems to help teachers spend extra time with the children with whom it is the most difficult to connect. Then, whatever progress is made in forming those relationships is scrapped at the end of a school year when kids move on to the next grade where they will start, anew, with another teacher with whom they may or may not be able to bond.

We all understand how important it is to pull parents into the process as partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their sons and daughters, but there is no well-developed strategy integrated within the daily activities of teaching for accomplishing this objective.

We all know kids arrive for their first day of school with cavernous disparity with respect to academic preparedness and motivation to learn, but we make no formal effort to assess their state of readiness, so we can formulate a strategy that optimizes our ability to attend to their unique requirements.

We all believe that every child needs time to learn and that the best way for most children to learn is to get concentrated help to understand their mistakes and then have an opportunity to try again and apply the lessons learned. We do our best, of course, but the age-old process very quickly prompts us to move the class on to a new lesson, knowing that there are any number of students who are not ready. We don’t like it, but this is the way the process is designed to work and we all feel the burden of competency examinations looming in the future. We are asked to conform to the arbitrary structure, process, and schedule rather than expecting these things to conform to the needs of our students and teachers. How does this improve academic preparedness and motivation to learn?

It is just common sense that when we stop a lesson before a child understands, because time is up, that they will be that much less prepared to succeed on the next lesson, which may well require that they apply what they have already learned. Kids cannot effectively apply knowledge they’ve been unable to gain because an arbitrary schedule was the priority.

Almost everyone understands that it is through our successes, and the celebration of them, that we gain confidence in ourselves, thus improving the odds for a student’s successful mastery of future lessons.

When we record a failing grade, the research has long concluded that this has a labeling effect that colors their teachers’ perception of a child’s ability to learn, diminishes the student’s self-esteem, and makes it easy for them to believe what they hear when their classmates refer to them as one of the dumb kids.

How many more examples do we need to offer before educators begin to see that the existing education process has grown obsolete and truly is a minefield of distractions from their purpose. It is not created to make their job easy or to make learning easy and fun for students, or to help them develop a powerful motivation to learn. The process is not teacher/student focused.

Why don’t educators and education policy makers go back to the drawing board and start from scratch to create an education process that utilizes applied ergonomics to help teachers bond with their students; pull parents in as partners; makes sure every child is able to start from the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where they were when they arrived at our door; that is structured in a way that helps us tailor an academic path to meet the unique requirements of each child; that gives each student however much time they need to learn a given lesson because a teacher’s job is not done unless the child can utilize what they have learned.

From about the middle of 2006 until late in 2013, creating such a teaching/learning environment has been my focus. I started by striving to make sense of what I had witnessed as a substitute teacher from 2002 through 2012. I had retired from my positive leadership and organizational development consulting business to pursue my lifelong dream of writing books and chose to sub to earn some extra income. As I began to observe the challenges faced by both teachers and students, it seemed natural to begin applying my experience in positive leadership and organizational development consulting to address a process that was clearly dysfunctional.

One of my specialties was evaluating the production and service-delivery processes of clients who were frustrated that their outcomes were unacceptable. My job was to analyze the process and then modify it to produce better outcomes or, far more often, reinvent the process to produce the desired outcomes. It was simply a process of making sure the internal logic and activity of the process were perfectly aligned to serve its purpose. It involved organizing the activity of the people doing the work to make sure they remained focused on that purpose and ensure that the process was engineered in a way that every action and resource existed to support the work people were asked to do; to help them do their jobs to the highest standards of quality.

The result of my work on the education process was reported, first, in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: the Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, which includes the initial version of a new education model. After the book’s publication, in 2013, I continued to work to refine the process and published those results on my blog, first in a white paper that was written to lay the foundation for the education model and then present the model, itself. During this time, I also published over 150 articles on the challenges facing teachers and students in the public-school districts of America. They were written to challenge teachers to break out of their conventional boundaries and undergo a paradigm shift.

My intention was to create a system much like what I outlined above; an education process molded around the relationship between teachers and their students, putting teachers in a position to teach and children in a position to learn. And, then defining purpose and objectives, creating a structure to support the efforts of people, and the other components of an effective service delivery process. I continue to revise the model as I learn things from you, the professional educators with whom I interact on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Email, and through my blog.

I invite you to look at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/. What do you have to lose? Imagine what it would be to work in an environment that was conceived and constructed to support you in your work in every conceivable way.

Excerpt #6 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, The Introduction, cont.

All educational policy makers, decision-makers, administrators, and practitioners are challenged to step back to a vantage point from which they can examine the system as an integral whole and challenge their fundamental assumptions about the educational process. We will show how this can be done, very specifically, in a later section of this work. All players in the system must be tasked to break out of their encapsulation and to think exponentially. What we need from teachers is that they acquire a willingness to try new things and be willing to leave their zones of comfort. Not everything we try will work but we will find no new solutions until we do try.

We can predict with a high level of confidence that increased student motivation and parental participation will make a difference in any educational setting. What is not so clear is whether the innovations in curriculum and instructional methodology utilized in these special schools would translate to all students across the spectrum of our diverse population of American children.

Honors programs in our mainstream public schools provide supportive evidence for this argument. In such honors programs, students have been selected on the basis of their demonstrated accomplishments. These are highly motivated students, almost all of whom are supported by committed parents who view themselves as full partners in the educational process. Within honors programs, the students, already successful academically, enjoy some of but not all of the advantages enjoyed by students in special schools. Often, principals assign their best and most experienced teachers to honors programs. In addition, the students in honors programs are sheltered from much of the negative peer pressure that pervades the classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds of most urban public schools. Honor students, for example, rarely are required to deal with the harassment of students who view education with disdain. They might have to deal with it in the corridors but not in an adjacent seat within an honors classroom.

The attributes that distinguish honor students, who are essentially self-selected for the program, from the non-honors students of their school are their motivation to learn, a demonstrated proficiency in an academic arena, and the fact that they are supported by parents who rigorously support the educational process. Our argument is further supported by the fact, to which many teachers will attest, that there are many other students who could be honors students if only they cared and if only they could be encouraged to try. Excellent teachers can and do provide such encouragement and we know that the encouragement of committed parents can be a powerful influence. The encouragement of teachers and parents working in partnership, however, creates the absolute best environment for the success of students. It is imperative that we work relentlessly to bring all American parents into this partnership. Although I have no evidence to prove my assertion, I believe that even teachers at the lower end of the performance curve do their best work with those students whose parents make an effort to show up at conferences and call or drop by to see how their children are doing.

An important difference between special schools outside of the mainstream system of education and highly successful honors classes is that while special schools are able to employ innovations in curriculum and teaching methods, honors programs must rely on the same curriculum and educational methodology found in the mainstream classrooms of their state. The only apparent difference for the honors classrooms are the motivation of students, their demonstrated accomplishments, and the rigorous support of families. This suggests to this author, that student motivation and parental responsibility are the most important components of educational success, wherever we find it. Honors students are also children for whom the traditional educational process is ideally suited. The flip side, here, poses a serious question: Could this be construed as evidence that our traditional educational processes are not a good fit for the majority of the students in our public schools?

The motivation of students and the active support and participation of parents are clearly the crucial difference makers in education, both public and private. The sooner we acknowledge this reality and begin to restructure our strategies accordingly, the sooner we will begin to see a transformation in the quality of American education for all students. Our second over-riding priority must be to challenge an educational process that seems to be both designed and focused on identifying and celebrating the accomplishments of a small percentage of elite students for whom academic success comes relatively easily, to the great disadvantage of the millions of other American children.

As we shall see when we examine the results of competency tests in the State of Indiana, thirty percent of the students throughout Indiana are unable to pass the ISTEP+ or the End of Class Assessments, which are meant to determine eligibility for graduation. Just because they passed does not mean that these students scored high on the assessments. Many passed by the slimmest of margins.

Over the coming century, the success of our nation requires a diverse range of skills. Excellence in any one venue will be as vital to our nation’s success as any other. Ron Flickinger, an educational consultant who provided feedback to me when this book was being written observed that, “The larger social system will value some skills more than others and will obviously pay more for those skills, but the culture has to find a way to communicate to its young that the guy that gets your plumbing right enhances the quality of your life just as much as the mayor of your city.”

An urgent need to completely rethink the reasons why so many children fail in our mainstream schools throughout the whole of the United States seems apparent.