A lot has been said about the problems with public schools, and I am not going to list all of them here. Instead, I would like to share my personal experience as an illustration to summarize the reasons for the failure of public schools, and to propose a solution.
My son is in second grade in a California school district described by its administrators as one of the best in the state, but his math curriculum continues to puzzle me. A random set of math topics is presented without emphasis on concept development. For the third year in a row, my son is being taught all aspects of coin counting that can conceivably be considered “fun.” I believe that the purpose of studying math is the development of logical thinking, and that coin-counting is better done by machines.
Recently I had an opportunity to compare public education in Russia and in the United States, and I would like to share my observations. Soviet math education was one of the best in the world. Soviet universities competed for the best high school graduates, and they supported a system of Math Olympiads and math enrichment classes for secondary school students, which allowed universities to attract future college math wizards.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the massive emigration of experienced teachers, lack of funding and the loss of prestige for higher education, the quality of Russian math education has declined. Yet in a Pisa 2006 study on the quality of math education in various countries, 31% more Russian students scored at the highest (sixth) level compared to American students; this is despite the fact that Russian students spend less time in the classroom and per-pupil expenditures in Russian schools are a fraction of what they are in the U.S.
I was recently in Russia interviewing software engineers for a Russian subsidiary of my company. To my great surprise, the majority of candidates were easily able to solve a logical puzzle that had proved difficult for their American counterparts. (The puzzle is a variation of a weighing-steps minimization problem.) I think Russian engineers did better than their American counterparts did because they received a better secondary math education.
While Russian math has admittedly declined, the current state-approved math books closely resemble their excellent Soviet predecessors. They start with basic topics and gradually move to more advanced ones. There are many repetitive exercises to ensure that a student has mastered the previously covered topics. The books are colorful and fun to read, and there are slightly more challenging problems at the end of each lesson to pique student curiosity about subjects not directly covered in the lesson. The emphasis is on logic and problem-solving while building skills necessary to move to more advanced topics. There are non-standard problems to better prepare students for real-life problems.
My son attended a Russian elementary school during a Christmas break, and he was most impressed. The school day was shorter, there was more time to play after school, and he received daily math assignments that were given in the logical progression of the subject. He found Russian math lessons both challenging and interesting.
How do the Russian textbooks compare to the public school textbooks used by my son? His “Everyday Mathematics” textbook is purchased and held by the school. Parents do not see it until the end of the year when only the workbook is given to them. The “Everyday Mathematics” system is approved and recommended by the U.S. Department of Education; it presents mathematical topics in a random order and does not require students to master basic topics before they progress to more advanced ones.
In an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education in 1999, 200 mathematicians, including Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners, argued that “Everyday Mathematics” should not be used because it does not follow a logical order of the pupil’s math skills. Yet it continues to be used by many school districts across the U.S.
Many parents protest the “Everyday Mathematics” curriculum adopted by our school district, but they have had no discernible effect. The only way to get it removed is for a group of parents to mount a district-wide campaign against the curriculum. Unfortunately, given the cost of the campaign, it is cheaper to send a child to a private school.
What are the top reasons for the failure of public schools?
1) Universities have very little involvement with the public schools. Universities are the incubators of ideas and can make a decisive difference in the quality of the public-school education. American universities already have an abundant supply of high-quality applicants from the U.S. and abroad, and they do not need to invest time and effort in searching for or educating more talent in the public schools.
2) Math is taught by teachers who do not know mathematics. Several generations of students have had poor math instruction, and the majority of math teachers do not know math themselves. In Russian high and middle schools, only mathematics majors can teach the subject; in elementary school, qualification requires specialized elementary school math training.
3) Engineering careers are not lucrative. Section 1706 of the IRS code prevents one-person engineering firms from entering into consulting relationships with most American employers. This is because the IRS may reclassify the consultant as an employee and force its employer to pay back employment and social security taxes, even though the consultant already paid these taxes. Few employers that hire engineering consultants contractually demand that consultants are responsible for back taxes and penalties in the case of reclassification.
4) Parents cannot gauge the quality of their children’s education before it is too late. School districts are independently run and operated; they use different curricula and constantly shuffle teachers, students and principals. Parents and taxpayers should be able to determine easily how well students are doing in their school district compared to other districts without relying on school officials’ rhetoric that they provide excellent education.
In order to improve American public schools, we need to change our educational and tax policy. We need to create financial incentives for our universities to provide enrichment classes to public school students. States should require that school districts only employ math majors to teach math.
Repealing Section 1706 would go a long way in restoring the glory to engineering careers on par with medicine and law. Engineers operating the one-man shops would have better control over their intellectual property and, as a result, command higher salaries.
We also need to encourage school districts to seek accreditation for their math curricula. Accreditation should be state-regulated and reflect districts’ goals (e.g. keeping students busy, preparing students for college, or giving students a world-class education). Program accreditation would send parents a clear message regarding the quality of math education that they can expect at a particular school district.
Aleksey Nudelman, Ph.D., is the CEO of C# Computing and a co-author of an upcoming book, “Multiprocessor Programming with C#.”