Thirty years ago, the movie “Stand and Deliver” told the story of poor, mostly Hispanic, potential dropouts and their teacher, Jaime Escalante. In the film, Mr. Escalante’s students progressed from not knowing arithmetic to mastering advanced placement calculus in a single term, largely because he expected great things of them.

In real life, it didn’t happen that way. Mr. Escalante spent more than a decade building his math program. The real students who made it through his high-flying calculus class worked for years to get there.

Expectations are important. Some students are hampered by mistaken stereotypes rooted in race and poverty, what President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Education secretary Rod Paige termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” At the same time, many poor, minority students bring significant social, economic and academic disadvantages from home, which genuinely limit their prospects for success at school. In addition, the education reform movement has long maintained low expectations for all races and classes, though reformers and policymakers have always been careful to dress them up in high-flying, 21st-century rhetoric.

Schools, like any enterprise, need to shed faulty assumptions. The persistent issues of race and poverty merit our attention as a nation. But Mr. Escalante’s students didn’t go from zero to calculus after a marking period of believing in themselves. It took years of individual commitment and toil.

Thanks to decades of self-esteem building, American students have excelled when it comes to believing in themselves. In an international study conducted in self-esteem’s heyday, American students ranked highest when it came to confidence in their math abilities. Unfortunately, they ranked lowest when it came to actual “mathematical competence.” In other words, American adolescents thought highly of themselves as math students, despite the fact they weren’t very good math students.

The same study reported that most American teachers, on the advice of experts, ranked sensitivity to students above clarity of instruction. In contrast, Asian teachers were more concerned with clearly presenting subject matter. American teachers, worried about damaging self-esteem, tended to gloss over students’ errors, while their Asian colleagues pointedly examined mistakes as part of the learning process.

Over the ensuing decades, U.S. students’ performance on the international PISA assessment has shown “no significant improvement or decline” and consistently, disappointingly, placed in the average range.

You can’t blame our math mediocrity solely on the cult of self-esteem. For years, reformers have replaced traditional programs that build on fundamentals with approaches that sideline the basics in favor of “higher order” math and “problem solving.” These innovations, nicknamed “fuzzy math” by detractors, are responsible as well. In the same way, whole language, another touted reform, was culpable for many American students’ inability to read.

The merits of these methods are worth discussing. But the more worrisome question is why have schools found fuzzy math — or fuzzy anything so appealing?

Why are the multiplication tables passé? Why do experts disdain memorization? Why did schools relegate phonics to the ash heap? How did content become a dirty word? Why did we banish facts from history class and textbooks from science courses? When did “How do you feel about that?” become the central question in American classrooms?

Reformers recite a litany of reasons, from “engaging” students to developing “higher order” skills for the 21st century. But these justifications are smokescreens. Logic and creativity are neither new nor more necessary in this century than they were in the last. And not everything that’s necessary in life is engaging.

We stopped doing a lot of things in school because they weren’t fun.

Experts justify calculators on the grounds it’s more important for students to focus on those higher-order skills. That’s true if you’re talking about high school physics, but it’s not the reason we’re handing out calculators to 9-year-olds. The real reason is, memorizing the multiplication tables is a pain in the neck. Requiring students learn and practice basic skills might make them not enjoy math. We don’t want that to happen, so instead we deny them those skills so they can’t do math.

Experts point out many low socioeconomic status, often minority students, lack the fundamental skills and foundation that middle-class, often white students, are more likely to acquire at home. While they’re sadly overstating how many middle-class children come to school with those advantages anymore, growing up middle-class clearly conveys learning benefits.

These same experts justly contend low socioeconomic status students need access to college prep courses like algebra, trig and Mr. Escalante’s calculus. The trouble is, their solution for students who lack fundamental skills is to skip the basics in the name of social equality and self-esteem, and jump right to the flashy stuff. This is exactly the wrong approach.

All students need to master the fundamentals. Children who start out at a deficit are precisely the children who need them the most. The less familiar you are with the fundamentals, the more time, not the less time, you need to spend on them.

Enhanced government social programs, including those currently under discussion, can help address need and inequity. But there’s little schools can do to eliminate hardships at home. Starting out behind means you have further to go to catch up.

There is no shortcut to learning. That’s the expectation we need to pass on to all students, whether they like it or not. And whether we like it or not.

Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

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(2) comments

Just sayin'

Peter did it again- he has me agreeing while disagreeing with him. Maybe it's because he always takes such an extreme, all or nothing, stand on the issues of learning in schools. I always see opportunities to embrace both the social emotional child and the academic one. Nonetheless, I so enjoy his letters; he always gets me thinking.

Karl Stevens

I agree with Peter's assessment that "fuzzy math" and concentrating on self-esteem are not doing anyone any favors. But I also think he's laboring under some mistaken ideas.

For example, he writes "growing up middle-class clearly conveys learning benefits." Eh. Sort of.

Our economy strongly rewards intelligence. So, it seems likely that kids who have middle class parents, on average also have more intelligent parents than kids who grow up in poverty. Intelligence is largely hereditary, so unsurprisingly, smart middle class parents tend to have smarter kids (on average; of course there are exceptions). In other words, being middle class doesn't make you smart or make you good at school. Rather, being smart makes you both middle class and good at school.

Also, although the USA only performs fair-to-middling on the PISA, most of the difference between us and other countries can be explained by our diversity. Take a look at the country rankings on the PISA. It's dominated by East Asian countries at the top, followed by European countries, then Latin American countries, then predominately African or majority-Black Caribbean countries.

The USA's results match this stratification. If you look only at Asian-American students' performance on the PISA, they perform at the very top of the heap, right there with Japan and South Korea. Likewise, White American students perform as well as or better than most European countries. Hispanic/Latino American students are further down the list. And Black American students are still further down the list (though still better than other majority-Black countries). This isn't to say that our schools can't do better at teaching the fundamentals (they definitely can), but our diversity in this case is not our strength.

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