Was Galileo Wrong?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on


Diane Ravitch, the eminent historian of education, has noted that “[i]n the land of American pedagogy, innovation is frequently confused with progress, and whatever is thought to be new is always embraced more readily than what is known to be true.”

Nowhere does public education’s intellectual fog envelope minds more obviously than when American educators think about how to improve the nation’s academic standing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Today’s Globe article makes it crystal clear that we are falling far short of the best countries and especially short of our global economic competitors.

Nearly 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei, the “Father of Modern Science,” told the geocentric world, “science is written in the language of mathematics.” And given that math is the lingua franca of science, any students who are to develop strong science study skills will need to have already developed a firm hold on core math functions like times tables, fractions and algebra. The much dreaded “automatic recall” of mathematical functions is the necessary stuff that makes higher-level math, and therefore science, possible. Is that me talking?

Nope. That’s the prestigious 2008 National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMAP), which did what panels and blue ribbon commissions are supposed to do: Review boatloads of research on the topic in question before putting a policy oar in the water. In this case, the NMAP reviewed 15,000 pieces of research on math education. This is what they concluded:

A major goal for K–8 mathematics education should be proficiency with fractions (including decimals, percent, and negative fractions), for such proficiency is foundational for algebra and, at the present time, seems to be severely underdeveloped. Proficiency with whole numbers is a necessary precursor for the study of fractions, as are aspects of measurement and geometry. These three areas—whole numbers, fractions, and particular aspects of geometry and measurement—are the Critical Foundations of Algebra.

Want more? This, too, is from NMAP:

Computational proficiency with whole number operations is dependent on sufficient and appropriate practice to develop automatic recall of addition and related subtraction facts, and of multiplication and related division facts. It also requires fluency with the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Over a decade ago, with oversight by one of the nation’s leading experts on academic standards (Sandra Stotsky), Massachusetts took the very approach that NMAP called for as regards the Bay State’s academic approach to math and science standards. The results were huge and historic gains in student performance on the national assessments (NAEP), the Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS), the SATs and the ACT tests. The Bay State’s now defunct math standards aligned well with the NMAP report in great part because the NMAP confirmed what Stotsky advanced here.

In fact, because of her work, she was appointed to serve on the NMAP with other academic mathematicians and experts. She unpacked the lessons from the NMAP for Massachusetts policymakers in a report that detailed what we can do to go even further than we have and fully rival the very highest performing countries in the world in math. While we had the best math and science standards in the country, they certainly could and should have been improved.

Instead, as a state, we’ve decided to go in the opposite direction. This summer, Gov. Patrick’s Board of Education adopted inferior national standards. Days after that vote in the middle of July, even though she had done tremendous work in the Bay State on standards and other education reforms, Governor Patrick removed Dr. Stotsky from the Board of Ed. It raised a lot of eyebrows, especially after the Boston Globe had just the month before called for the Governor to keep her on board to contrast the more touchy-feely board members.

It did not raise the eyebrows of the Massachusetts Teacher Association. Nope, they crowed. At a union member event at which the Governor was a highlighted speaker, the new president of the MTA hailed the Patrick Murray team for

putting educators and union members on boards and commissions. The governor just recently announced the appointment of James McDermott, a retired Worcester public school teacher and MTA member, to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, while removing Sandra Stotsky, no friend of ours, from the BESE.

In Galileo’s day, his critics didn’t listen to him either because his ideas literally turned their world upside down. In our time, the American educationists can’t ever seem to shake their attachment to the faddish notion that STEM education should be “hands on,” “skills and project based,” and should never, ever include “strict memorization” of knowledge and facts. This ed school theory is called “constructivism” and the evidence makes clear it’s the source of America’s decline in math and science, but, oddly enough, it still has its proponents.

One of which seems to be the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts Paul Reville, who noted in the Globe article: “The hope is to get students to think like scientists and not just memorize facts.”

Is it any wonder why American students lag behind their international peers in math and science? I know that I have talked the need for our state policymakers to review the data and research as the NMAP did. It is disappointing to see that such common sense empirical approaches have not changed the minds of key policymakers. Perhaps Galileo was right in noting that “you cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.”