Saturday, May 14, 2011

The New Economy and the Corruption of the Classroom

Here's the best piece about the U.S. economy that I've read in some time. It's author is Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel. He has the courage to state the obvious: the U.S. no longer creates the good jobs that it once did. The reason? We've shipped so much overseas - so many jobs, so much technological know-how - that we've largely lost the ability either to create new technologies or to scale-up their production and thus create good jobs. Instead we chased short-term profit and so sacrificed the long-term stability of the U.S. economy.

What consequence does this have for my classroom? Why does this matter to a teacher of mathematics? Our politicians and our administrators know perfectly well that good factory jobs are a thing of the past. Thus they force every student onto the college track. I do understand the motive. Without a college degree, a student will likely fare quite poorly in this new economy of ours. With a college degree, there is a possibility of decent pay; without it, there is little or none.

But here's the problem. Many of my students should not be on the college-track. Many don't want to be. Many don't have the emotional maturity for it. Many aren't prepared for a rigorous course of study. Many simply lack the ability.

I don't mean to denigrate my students, for I value much besides academic achievement. Love of family, commitment to work, church and community - these and many others are among the greatest of goods, and a college degree isn't necessary (or sufficient) for the achievement of any of them. But I do bemoan the fate of those of my students who cannot succeed in college. Through no fault of their own, they find themselves at a time and place where simple virtue is not by itself sufficient to escape poverty. They are forced onto a path for which they are ill-suited and thus fail.

What is the consequence of this in the classroom? Perhaps as many as half of my students should not be in my class. They are not prepared or able to do the work. One of two results is inevitable: either I dumb-down the course, or I fail them.

The reality of course is that I and my colleagues do a bit of both. Out of compassion, and a belief that if we were to fail a significant percentage of our students this would reflect badly on us, we make our courses easier; and we still fail quite a few. Thus our classrooms are corrupted. Good students are forced to endure dumbed-down courses; bad students are forced to take classes they never would have found themselves in before. Few students are well-served. (In my cases, only those who take Honors courses escape this fate, but at times I fear that even they too suffer. Once standards are allowed to slip anywhere, they tend to slip everywhere.)

The pessimistic that a solution to the problem I've described will be found. Indeed I suspect that it will only grow worse in the near future. The Obama administration's Race to the Top punishes schools if any of their students show themselves unready for college. This is surely folly.

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