Op-ed: American Public Education Is Failing Miserably In Math And Science

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By Jamie Gass and Ze’ev Wurman

This op-ed appeared in The Daily Caller and The New Bedford Standard Times.

“If I have seen further,” declared the great 17th-century English scientist Sir Isaac Newton, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This season marks Newton’s 373th birthday, and his humility before renowned thinkers — Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Descartes — set in motion a towering life that redefined math, science, engineering, optics, and astronomy.

Aside from the legend of the apple tree and gravity, American schoolchildren should know we reside in a universe that for centuries has been largely explained by the genius of Isaac Newton’s computations, experiments and ideas.

Specifically, Newton developed calculus, a mathematical understanding of how things change; revolutionized optics by revealing that white light contains all the rainbow’s colors; and invented the reflecting telescope for peering more clearly into space.

When Newton was asked how he discovered the law of universal gravitation, he replied: “By thinking on it continually.”

Decades of dismal international results indicate that American K-12 public education has been busier validating students’ math and science phobias than teaching academic content. Research shows that math and science are “ruthlessly cumulative,” requiring automatic recall of facts learned in the early grades. But memorization remains a dirty word in America’s schools.

The intellectual farsightedness of Massachusetts officials stands on the shoulders of the 1993 Education Reform Act’s (MERA) legislative co-authors Tom Birmingham and Mark Roosevelt, together with Gov. Bill Weld.

Their law’s impact was multiplied by the work of Harvard University mathematician Wilfried Schmid, standards expert Sandra Stotsky, and state math and science teachers. MERA’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) standards and high-stakes tests were central to the commonwealth’s historic K-12 accomplishments.

The stellar record of Massachusetts in math was also a tribute to accessing algebra I by eighth grade, as is done in high-performing Asian countries. With this academic commitment, students were set on a trajectory towards global excellence in high school and beyond.

As a result, from 2005 to 2015, our students outperformed their counterparts from every other state on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2007 and 2011, the Bay State ranked among the world’s highest-achieving countries on gold-standard testing, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Massachusetts’ K-12 STEM revolution contrasts with the inferior-quality math and science found in the nationalized Common Core and misleadingly named Next Generation Science Standards.

As Newton said, “What goes up must come down.”

In 2010, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration traded away proven math standards in Massachusetts for $250 million in one-time federal grant money. With that money came Common Core math, which leaves Bay State students two years behind their international competitors.

Since, as Galileo wrote, “The laws of Nature are written in the language of mathematics,” Common Core math’s grave deficiencies increase exponentially across all K-12 science instruction.

Sadly, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration ignored the empirical data and discarded our world-leading science standards for mediocre national ones. Massachusetts now has essentially the same math and science standards as Arkansas.

In 2015, the commonwealth’s policymakers stopped participating in rigorous TIMSS testing, instead opting for the soft skills-centric Programme for International Student Assessment, which Stanford University mathematician R. James Milgram calls “shopping cart math.”

Placing political calculation over durable evidence, the Beltway’s flat earth societies — the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and Achieve, Inc. — established dumbed-down Common Core and national science standards, which hurt American students in global competition.

Polls show that Common Core is widely unpopular with the public, while infuriating parents with its nonsensical abandonment of algebraic fluency.

Unlike the giants of the 1993 Massachusetts reform, the D.C. edu-trade groups have woeful track records and the policies they espouse undermine higher-performing states’ competitive academic advantages.

Since Massachusetts adopted Common Core math, its NAEP scores have fallen. Nationally, 2015 math scores were the worst in years.

“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies,” Newton wrote, “but not the madness of people.” His brilliant independence, built on prior mathematical and scientific knowledge, allowed Sir Isaac to see centuries beyond his era.

In contrast, American K-12 math and science reform efforts fail decade after decade, because D.C. educrats consistently ignore the timeless wisdom of universal geniuses and the best examples of what works in schools.

Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank and Ze’ev Wurman is an executive with a semiconductor startup in Silicon Valley and a former senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.