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Facing Educational Reality

A few weeks back, Roger Schank tossed out some red meat for the education traditionalists by declaring that math and science was irrelevant for most American high school students. At least the way it’s currently taught.

He evidently received quite a bit of feedback from the “defenders of the faith” but is not backing down.

In a short response, Schank reiterates a couple of excellent points about the American education system.

This country needs to come to grips with the fact that the high school curriculum reflects a notion of how nineteenth century scholars thought about how to produce more scholars like themselves.

Fifty per cent drop out rates in high school reflect the irrelevance of what is being taught in high school. The kids know it, but the system, which is defended by nearly everyone associated with it, does not.

As painful as it may be to face, he’s exactly right.

For example, the math curriculum in most high schools (the part I’m most familiar with), aims every student with laser precision at eventually taking Calculus.

Very few people need Calculus in their work, much less their lives. And please don’t feed me the old line about improving reasoning skills. There precious little of that in the rote-memorization-of-algorithms approach used in most classes.

It would make much more sense for every student leaving high school to instead have a solid foundation in basic probability and statistics.

Considering all the numbers tossed around in the news, not to mention many business situations, it would make for a far more realistic and useful math curriculum than the one we have now.

If nothing else, it might help more Americans think twice before spending their money on lottery tickets.

education, math, reform


  1. Raj

    This is certainly what people are saying – that Education in general has really lost it’s way when looking at what the next generation will really need to get “it’s job done”.

    The basics are fine, but after that, we really need to look at the workplace and start specializing students much earlier.

  2. KN Master

    It is a painful message to accept, as is the case with most instances of change. But pain isn’t (shouldn’t) be associated with validity and/or truth. Just ’cause it hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t true or necessary.

    Roger often overstates his case to get people to think, but in this instance I think he may be speaking from the heart.

    It seems to me that the root of the issue is based in the answer to “what are high schools for?” Roger’s argument is that the HS curriculum we still use today was originally created (at an 1892 conference at Harvard!) to service the scholarship needs of the elite (mostly those who would become professors). This doesn’t reflect the realities and needs of today’s student, but yet we blindly continue to subscribe to it because “it’s what I went through and I didn’t turn out too bad!”.

    I think Roger hits the nail on the head in saying that school should be for teaching “how to live and make a living”, not in route memorization of stuff we rarely/never use in “the real world”.

    I’ve blogged on a similar theme at: http://knowledgenarratives.blogspot.com/2006/12/math-science-value.html

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