What are we afraid of?

In education? A lot of things, it seems. At least that could be the assumption if someone looked at the ways that we use policy to make decisions on behalf of our young people.

The causal onlooker might assume…

We are afraid that our young people (and their families) won’t value the education we provide. (That’s why we have laws that require students to come to school until they reach the age of 18.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value mathematics. (That’s why we require students to take four years of mathematics in high school successfully completing at least Algebra II.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value reading and writing. (That’s why we require students to take four years of English Language Arts in high school.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value college readiness. (That’s why we require each student to be given the ACT test during their junior year of high school.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value other cultures. (That’s why we require each student to successfully complete two years of a foreign language.)

We are afraid that our young people won’t value their own health. (That’s why we require them to take gym class. That’s why we require them to be served vegetables. That’s why we outlaw soda.)

So, our policies have helped us fend off that which we fear, right? Well, not so fast. We can legislate our students to be on site, and largely we have. The compulsory attendance rules are enough to convince the overwhelming majority of students to attend their classes almost daily. But it can’t make them value it.

Consider the likely state of a basketball team if each student was require to play a season. Coaches would probably spend an awful lot of their practice time deciding what to do about student who are literally only there because the state requires them to be. This would take its toll on the quality of the coaching that the program would be able to provide.

And because of the inherently competitive nature of basketball, we have no problem making decisions in the best interest of the quality of the programming. While I am not advocating for tryouts and cuts into the high school mathematics program, I think that it is fair to assume that the compulsory nature of the program has the same effect… and that the effect is undesirable.

As a math teacher, my job has never been so secure. The state has ensured my classes are full every hour, every year. Those kids don’t have a choice. They have to get through Algebra II and they have to take a math class their senior year if they should happen to go on ahead (that’s the law in Michigan, where I teach). They don’t have to value mathematics. They just have to earn credit.

So, we’ve won, right? Armed with 4 years of math, they are ready for college… Well, not so fast. Still much remediation is needed at the college level (at least in New York… and Washington… and California… and Illinois… ).

We can legislate them sitting in class. We can’t legislate that they value it. And they appear not to be valuing it. An article from the APA discuss this very issue:

Teachers have observed that after second or third grade, many students begin to show signs of losing their motivation to learn. What happened to that natural eagerness to go to school and the curiosity to learn that is so apparent in preschool, first, and second grade students?

Why do students progressively seem to take less responsibility for their own learning?This challenge only grows as students move from upper elementary to secondary school levels. (from Barbara McCombs, emphasis mine)

This seems like a natural consequence of us increasing the amount of non-negotiables that we a putting on our students. Think like a teenager: What’s the point of taking ownership if you are simply going to tell us everything that we have to do anyway?

The article continues to assert that motivation improves as teachers “provide meaningful choices” to help “students develop a sense of ownership over the learning process.” Also that, “motivation to learn is a thoughtful process of aligning student choices so that students see the value of these choices as tools for meeting their learning needs and goals.”

Finally, that we teachers should “involve students in setting objectives” and “appeal to student interest and curiosity.”

So, now we are faced with a very real conundrum. If ownership improves motivation, what is the natural consequence of legally forcing our young people to come to a place where most of their decisions are made for them?

Policymakers saw a problem with math achievement, so they require kids to take more math, removing a certain amount of ownership from the students. Well, when ownership drops, motivation follows. When motivation drops, achievement follows. When achievement drops, new policies are put in place that remove a little more ownership from the students. Then ownership suffers, and when that happens… you see where this might be headed?

And just like people simply never “got used” to prohibition, it seems unreasonable that students will eventually begin to self-motivate in a place where there is very little academic autonomy.

All this having been said, I don’t think compulsory education is going away. I don’t think math requirements are going away. So, what are we to do?

That makes the job of the math teacher to do everything they can to convince students that our math classes are useful. (I’ve talked about this before: In my “useless math class” series from earlier in the year.) Each course they take is an opportunity to learn how to model and solve problems of ever-increasing complexity and realism. Each course provides practice at modeling life situation mathematically because the math provides the means to focus on the essential variables of the problem. Each course provides an opportunity to develop a way to cope with the struggles that come with learning challenging material and being supported in the process of developing deeper understanding.

The education system is facing a problem in the area of mathematics. But low achievement is a symptom. It isn’t the problem. The problem is that our classes aren’t valued by our young people. That is a problem we can’t policy away. That is a problem we have to fix in the classroom by putting our students through valuable experience after valuable experience after valuable experience. The #MTBoS is working hard to develop those experiences for teachers at all levels.

Given the ways that the policies are undercutting our classes effectiveness, the conversation has never been more important.