By: Dr. Charles Ormsby – January, 2005

We have been bombarded with news stories recently detailing the abysmal state of public education in the US. It is a theme I have been preaching for decades and a disaster that I am now witnessing up close and personal.

The spate of recent articles was prompted by the results of a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that shows US teens ranked 28th academically out of 40 countries tested. No, we’re not at the very bottom…yet. While we under-performed the Slovak Republic, Poland, and Spain, we can take comfort in having beaten Portugal, Mexico, and Tunisia. Three cheers for the home team.

The OECD results are essentially a rebroadcast of similar results found by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in the late ‘90s, showing the US near the back of the pack.

Those who study educational outcomes realize that there is typically a strong correlation between economic well-being and student performance. No one is surprised when Andover and North Andover outscore Lawrence on the annual MCAS tests. Consider the shock and awe if Lawrence trounced Andover on the MCAS this year!

Well, that is what is happening in mathematics internationally. It is as if a high school softball team beat the Red Sox. Except, in mathematics, it’s not a fluke. Much poorer countries are beating the US every time. It’s no contest.

The reasons that a preponderance of our high school graduates are innumerate (i.e., mathematically illiterate) are well known and obvious to any honest and knowledgeable observer.

The crisis has its roots at the elementary school level. The biggest problems are: low standards, no expectation of mastery or competence, inadequate teacher skills in mathematics, and unfocussed math curricula that treat far too many topics but none with sufficient depth. Throw in a refusal to even teach the standard arithmetic methods for multiplying, dividing, and fractions, along with encouraging use of calculators, and you have a five-star recipe for failure … and that’s just what we get.

The Middle Schools then have the unpleasant task of giving the students who couldn’t overcome these barriers the bad news: They’re assigned to remedial math. Their path to honors and AP courses in mathematics and science is cut off. Too bad. Purple hair and lip rings soon follow.

What is bad news for our students is great news for private tutoring firms. Just ask the Sylvan Learning Centers or Kumon. Kumon alone has tutoring centers in North Andover, Andover, Haverhill, Middleton, Danvers, Reading, …. and the list goes on. You may note that Lawrence is not listed. Is Lawrence succeeding in math or are there just fewer parents able to pay the tutoring bills? You decide.

I stopped in to the North Andover Kumon tutoring center recently. There was a swarm of bright, energetic kids enjoying and learning real math. An instructor told me that business is booming. Think this is a hint? Could our public schools be falling short? Do they need fundamental reform?

I have just finished my first semester teaching Calculus I to science and engineering students at U. Mass. Lowell. The best students do well and can go on to successful careers in technical fields. But the failure statistics are appalling.

Note, in this course we’re dealing only with those select students that aspire to math-related careers. Also, note that approximately 50% of the entering math and science students know they cannot pass Calculus I without further preparation so they take a less demanding (remedial), pre-calculus course. As a result, the following results are for the best prepared 50% of aspiring math and science majors … a group that should be well prepared to complete Calculus I with flying colors.

The results: The sad fact is that roughly 55% of these “best prepared” students drop out by mid-semester or fail outright. Only 1/3 of the students get a C or better, enabling them to advance to Calculus II. The other 67% (and those who took remedial math) were cheated by our public education system. They came to college without basic skills in fractions or introductory algebra. These are topics that should be mastered between 4th and 9th grade … not in college.

Don’t fool yourself by thinking that these results are not representative of graduates of our local public schools. They are. Don’t try to point to the number of math and science graduates of US colleges … there are far too few of them and, if you scan the graduation lists, you will see that a very high percentage are foreign students or first generation immigrants.

This under performance of public education, while better documented and quantified for mathematics, extends to science (clearly related), history, geography, and language arts.

So what are our local School Committees doing about it? Nothing that addresses the core problems. They either don’t appreciate the seriousness of the problem, they accept these mediocre results, they are oblivious regarding possible remedies, or they find the obstacles so daunting that they surrender to the status quo.

Which is it? Inquiring minds want to know.

The excuses are endless: That’s the way we’ve always done things. The problems are too hard. The obstacles are impossible to overcome. It’s against the law. The unions won’t let us do that. Kids are too tired after football practice. You can’t do that under Ed Reform. Education is different than private businesses. Teachers don’t respond to the same incentives as others. Yeah, but kids are under a lot of pressure. Don’t forget their self-esteem. School is not just about academics. We don’t have enough money (tell Poland that!). ADHD, peanut allergies, Special Ed, … and finally, because of all this, we can’t do what you suggest. But don’t you dare tell me we don’t care about the children!

To be fair, there are many guilty parties. I could blame the Teachers’ Unions, but they are mostly guilty of the crime of advocating for their members. Of course they like their monopoly in education and bargaining. But, maintaining the near monopoly of government schools and the Teachers’ Unions over the teaching profession is not “for the children” any more than Ma Bell’s monopoly was “for the customer.”

Can we fire marginal teachers? No. How about testing teacher competency? No. Can we pay or reward teachers based on merit? No Way! But what should we expect?

The real culprits are our congressmen and state legislators who make the laws that prevent competition, give monopoly power to the unions, and strangle education reform. They are out for votes and money. The children be damned.

School Committee members are also to blame. No, they can’t change the law, but they are the representatives of the community’s taxpayers, parents, and students. And they do have voices and a bully pulpit. Their silence denies the children their voice and representation.

Students, Parents, and Taxpayers: Maybe you don’t care. But if you do, it is time to pick up the phone. CALL your Senators and Congressman. Call your State Rep and State Senator … but, most of all, call your School Committee Members and tell them that inaction is not acceptable. Tell them it is time to speak up and support fundamental reforms.

Education reform is just a phone call away. The children are counting on you.