Lagging US students need fewer tests, better teachers

I am so relieved to find that my concern over the shift from problem solving to content learning is now getting national attention through the Program for International Student Assessment results reported in your Dec. 7 article, "Math + Test = trouble for US economy."

I'm a science teacher and it is heart-breaking to have to rush my students through a laundry list of facts so they can pass standardized tests. We no longer have time to do practical projects and student-directed experiments. These activities train students in exactly the skills and attitudes they will need to power our economy in the 21st century.

When the US secretary of Education talks about the high standards and accountability that the No Child Left Behind legislation mandates, we have to ask if those standards are high standards for passing tests, or genuine high standards that teach our children skills and ways of thinking that will help them solve real problems in the real world.

Business needs to get involved in the math and science standards debate in every state. Their future, and ours, depends on it.
Sue Boudreau
El Sobrante, Calif.

That there is a problem with the scores of our students is undeniable. But the Dec. 16 article, "US lags in math, but not as far" contained a gem of information - the philosophy of educators. The key is the statement: "The most intransigent barriers to improvement in math and science performance may be the culture of teaching."

If you ask an educator what education is, you may be in for a surprise if you expect education to have anything to do with comprehending or solving problems. This is the real problem in education today.

Traditional teaching of math is a long process in which the student must recall memorized facts from previous lessons and apply them within new contexts. Since that is not "education" in the philosophy currently popular, students learn math as a series of encapsulated lessons without connections. Low scores on standardized tests are the result of students not being able to solve problems out of the specific, narrow format they have learned.
San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

In his Dec. 13 Opinion piece, "Math teacher pay doesn't add up," Louis Gerstner asks the question, "What will it take for our schools to attract the quality talent they need?" and accurately describes some of the problems - poor curricula, low standards, arcane recruiting and training, and lock-step pay scales. The same problems exist not only in math, but in all subject areas. The result is that the public schools do not attract high-quality applicants.

What Mr. Gerstner leaves out of his analysis is that schools create the roadblocks that prevent their own improvement. First, they require teachers to be "certified" and yet the process leading to certification - a major in education - is, for most college students, beneath their abilities.

Second, the schools treat all teachers the same in terms of ability, knowledge, and value. Thanks to union rules, teachers' pay depends on length of service instead of on productivity - the worst teachers are paid the same as the best. Thus, there is no incentive to improve. A third problem is that the teacher unions' push for ever-smaller class size and for limitations on the number of classes teachers may teach. This deters high-ability people by removing the incentive for high productivity.

Higher pay is not enough to attract high-ability people. The culture of public school needs to change from its one-size-fits-all doctrine to a free-market attitude with pay and incentives geared to productivity.
Ned Vare
Guilford, Conn.

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