A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Let Bernie Finish What He Began!

God how I wish I could stifle Randi Weingarten’s social media negative comments about Bernie Sanders’ failure to withdraw from the race for the Democratic nomination for president. I continue to worry that comments like hers from teacher union leadership will make it more difficult, if not impossible, for us to win over Bernie’s supporters in our ranks to Hillary. As importantly, these senseless comments spring from a complete lack of understanding as to who Bernie is.

I became aware of Bernie Sanders years ago as a member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, later to become the Democratic Socialists of America (DSOC). Bernie was a member too, and my first recollection of him is reading about his running for the mayor of Burlington Vermont. Common to the thinking of most DOC members was the belief central to the thinking of Michael Harrington, the chair of DSOC, that in America, the only realistic arena for the advancement of socialist values and programs was work within the Democratic Party. American socialists were simply not every going to be able to build a socialist party in the fashion of Europe. It seems to me that Bernie is the proof of Harrington’s wisdom. He must be understood, therefore as using his candidacy to build the Democratic Party into a more progressive force that it has been in recent time, returning it to the party that imagined and created the New Deal and the War on Poverty of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, democratic socialist programs.

If I am correct about his goals, why would Bernie quit now? To do so would be to completely betray the ideals that motivated his candidacy to begin with. To do so would be to allow the progressive, democratic socialist ideas that he has nurtured into the mainstream of political discourse to fizzle. A good showing in the remaining primaries gives hope to progressives, brings new blood into the movement and energizes those who have been on the political sidelines to come out and vote.

Bernie’s efforts to remake the Democratic Party are heroic and worthy of the support of everyone who claims the mantle of progressive, even those who prefer and support Hillary. To the extent that this is understood by Hillary’s supporters and acted upon appropriately, that is the extent to which we will see Bernie’s supporters come to full-throated support of Hillary. It is also the extent to which people like me who believe that good government is an essential bulwark against the excesses of capitalism can have a comfortable home in a party that has ignored us for too long.

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Crime and Lead Poisoning?

The water crisis in Flint Michigan has the nation thinking about the harmful effects of lead on human behavior. We have known for some time that lead poisoning can lead to diminished intellectual functioning and increases in behavioral disorders. What I certainly hadn’t thought about was the possible connection between lead poisoning and crime rates. That is until a read Josh Marshall’s blog yesterday in which he informs us of the growing body of scientific evidence connecting the two. Marshall frames his argument as follows “The basic argument to the lead thesis is that environmental lead poisoning takes 16 or 20 years to show up in crime statistics because that’s the time it takes for mainly men to reach their peak years of criminal activity. For the Crime Wave of the Late 20th Century the main contaminant seems to be leaded gasoline. Regulations began de-leading gas in the early 70s and crime rates started to fall in the early 90s (though there wasn’t much recognition that it was more than a blip until the mid- or late-90s.)”

If this argument is valid, think about what this line of thinking might mean for the education of children who in addition to absorbing the atmospheric lead from gasoline combustion were also exposed to the possibilities of lead paint chip ingestion living in the run-down tenements of our inner cities. To do so is to understand the effects of poverty from yet a different perspective and to recognize the idiocy of thinking that some magical educational bullet can undo such damage to so many children.

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Are Children Data Sets?

Those of us who have been committed to ending the test and punish agenda of the corporate school reform movement have watched with growing anger the actions of the National PTA in supporting that movement’s efforts with an almost surrealistic disregard for the impact of their support on the children they are committed to protect and defend. They now arrear to have joined forces with data collection dingbats who without any good evidence think more student data means better instruction and better schools. Blogger Peter Green has carefully looked into this. His findings should give pause to local PTAs, many of which have been strong opponents of high stakes testing and corporate data mining of information about public school students. Their actions are nothing short of scandalous.

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Measuring School Worth

The U.S. News rankings of America’s high schools were out last week. They are an essentially pointless ranking based on the number of students registered for Advanced Placement (AP) courses. They take no account of how many of those students actually take the tests or the scores they achieve. Few college professors see these courses as the equivalent college course, either in terms of content or the experience of students becoming increasingly responsible for their learning in a college setting. Yet, these baseless rankings have so insidiously entered contemporary education lore that people believe and make judgments on what is little more than thin air. They are responsible for a senseless competition between schools that increasingly feel compelled to push kids into AP courses who would often be much better off in a different academic setting. It shocking to see so many educators take these rankings seriously. It’s time this aspect of corporate influence on American public education received the scrutiny it deserves. Isn’t it peculiar that so much of the evaluation of our schools comes from areas of our society other than education? Why is there no educators’ index of school quality?

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Can Sanity Be Coming to Teacher Evaluation?

An extraordinary amount of time money and energy has been spent in the quest for some holy grail of teacher evaluation, all to absolutely no effect other than to severely damage the morale of the nation’s teaching force. Motivate by the empty slogan “a great teacher in front of every classroom, our political leaders, often with the assistance ed school professors, have taken us from evaluation system to evaluation system, all seeking to quantify the unquantifiable. Here in New York, school districts are supposed to have yet a new plain in place before the start of the new school year or face the loss of the recently enacted increase in state aid to education. Districts are in the process of doing this even though we all know that in a year or so we are going to have to do it again.

Here’s what I know about evaluating teachers. Judging their worth on the basis of student test score has been clearly demonstrated to be more about junk science than about judging worth. While it used to be the case that building administrators mostly knew how to judge good and bad teaching, in this day when they tend to come to their positions before they have mastered the craft of teaching, fewer and fewer of them have the foggiest idea of what they are looking at, focused as they are by rubrics that have them seek evidence for various parts of a lesson rather than the impact of the whole.

The best judges of teaching are teachers. In most schools, the experienced teachers know who the good teachers are. They know who should get tenure and whom we would be better off without. When one asks teachers whom they learned the most from about being a teacher, they will invariably tell you they learned from other teachers, more often than not in unplanned moments of interaction rather than any staff development at which some high paid consultant tells them what they ought to know. Yet, in most of our schools, we are indifferent to the thoughts of teachers about who should enter and stay in our profession. We schedule the teacher workday in such a way as to essentially preclude teachers having opportunities to talk to one another about their work. We isolate them for most of their day and have people less experienced and knowledgeable than they judge the quality of their work.

I had a little glimmer of optimism this morning as I read an article by Charlotte Danielson whose academic work has impelled many teacher accountability efforts. She now appears to be rethinking the subject more soberly. We share a belief in the importance of focusing on probationary teachers, making sure they are worthy of career status. We agree too on the importance of teachers engaging each other as a central feature of a system that promotes continuous teacher learning. Who knows? With big name scholars in the filed like Danielson thinking sanely about teacher evaluation, perhaps we can come up with a system that makes sense, even to our politicians.

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A Harbinger of Fall Possibilities

As I write this, the news media are reporting that Todd Kaminsky has won a very narrow victory over Chris McGrath, his Republican opponent. Kaminsky’s election is a victory for the coalition of parents and teacher union activists who have banded together to save public education from the corporate privatizers who seek to discredit our public schools to profit from owning them later on. This victory should be the harbinger of even greater victories in the fall. I have been arguing in union circles for some time that we need to look at districts with high rates of opting out of high stakes tests and union density. Our campaign to have our members be education voters needs the energy that comes from victories like Kaminsky’s. It’s my understanding that Ryan Cronin is running again against Kemp Hannon, a very beatable incumbent in the 6th Senate District who has done nothing to help us stop the testocracy from destroying our public schools. Cronin as a completely unknown made a very respectable showing when he ran against Hannon two cycles ago. In the current political environment we could elect him. But we need to make the kind of effort that was made in the 9th! We are already late.

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Not Again!

“This is a tremendous amount of work with no purpose. I think the people who wrote this don’t understand what it costs to renegotiate … and how now districts are being held hostage to this.” She was talking about the requirement in state law for school districts to negotiate new teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores, even though there is a moratorium on the use of score to evaluate teachers and work is beginning at the direction of the Regent to come up with a new approach to teacher evaluation.

It’s satisfying to know that at least one Regent is thinking about the absurdity surrounding high stakes testing and teacher evaluation in New York State. We have a bunch of new Regents who have begun to distance themselves from the Tisch era of corporate led school reform, a new chancellor who almost from the moment of taking office announced that if she had a child, she would opt her out of the state exams, and we have by all accounts a growing state and national opt out movement of parents and teachers who are seeing to it that fewer children take high stakes tests each year. We had over 100,000 opt outs on Long Island alone this year. What is to be gained from spending countless professional hours working out annual professional performance review plans (APPR) that are bound to change in a very short time? This is the kind of stupidity for which Albany has become famous.

It’s time for the Governor and our legislators to act to remedy this costly, teacher morale destroying foolishness. Changing the system by which we evaluate teacher every couple of years does not inspire the confidence all should have in the accuracy and fairness of that system.

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I’m Voting for Bernie Tomorrow

This primary season has offered an opportunity to understand why the message of a large part of the labor movement fails resonates with the American people. It has become a movement that shuns idealism. In no segment of our movement is that clearer than in our public education unions who leaders have ridiculed Bernie Sanders for his call for tuition free college education at state supported schools, universal health coverage, breaking up too big to fail financial institutions and even more disturbing pooh-poohing the possibility of a political revolution to substantially change an economic system heavily rigged in favor of a kleptocratic elite. They are obtuse to the reality that there is no future for our unions in the current system. They have lost faith in the promise of America becoming a better society, one in which education, health care and economic security are the rights of all Americans.

I’ll vote for Bernie Sanders tomorrow because I continue to believe that it is possible to reverse the 30 year trend of stagnating wages of the American worker. I believe that all citizens should have an opportunity to receive as much free education as they are able to absorb. While I applaud the Affordable Care Act, there are still too many Americans who do not have access to quality health care. I don’t understand, and never will, why they can’t have the same Medicare that covers me. I will vote for Bernie because he is as outraged as I that so many American children are stunted by poverty in the richest nation the word has ever known. We have a system that is literally shortening the lives of millions of our citizens. The movement Bernie Sanders seeks to build wants to change that. How can I not be a part of that noble goal?

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We Must become the Movement We Claim to Be

In our NEA New York days, Judi Alexanderson, Mike Lynch and I used to do a workshop many summer for union officers on how to build stronger locals. The goal was to reduce the dependence of local on the state organization, with the even larger goal redirecting resources from Albany to the locals out of a strong belief that the best possible work for a local is by well- trained local leaders. While I believe we helped some locals to become more independent, the vast majority are as weak today as then. Being a part of NYSUT now for a dozen years or so, to many resources still flow towards Albany rendering locals weaker than they have to be. That reality is embedded in the structure of our state union rather than in the conscious efforts of our state leaders. To be sure, NYSUT too makes some efforts to empower locals, but the fact that a looming Supreme Court decision in Friendrichs terrified us is stark testimony to that fact that we are not any way near as organized and resourced on the local level as we should be.

My own local is not perfect, but we had no fear of Friedrichs nor do we fear the cases that are sure to follow it. Had the decision in Friedrich’s gone against, we were already insulated from it, having signed our members up for next year. The yearly sign up process will now become a part of our yearly routine. Our teacher labor movement has largely failed to organize its local unions to be able to easily accomplish things like this. The extreme political right has located this vulnerability and is exploiting it from every direction. Were we the movement we claim to be, and I believe we could be, they wouldn’t have a chance against us.

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Without a calendar, I can tell we are getting close to the end of the school year as the pace of union work picks up. This year I’m especially harried in that I have announced my decision not to run for re-election as president of my local, and so I’m desperately trying to clean my plate before I turn things over to my successor. One of the things that has suffered as a result, is what has been daily postings to this blog, an activity that I hope to continue in retirement.

Last week I attended the NYSUT convention. I’ve been a NYSUT member since the merger of NEA/New York and NYSUT about a dozen years ago or so. Each year I’ve gone to its convention, only to wonder afterward why I bothered, so much of the time devoted to speeches from a predictable cast of political characters, characters who all love us, are behind us and have a deep and abiding respect for the invaluable work we do. This year at least, the monotony was broken by Hillary Clinton’s appearance. While I will vote for Bernie Sanders in next week’s primary, I have to say she made a moving speech focused on education issues that she knew were of interested to us. Should she be the democratic nominee, I will have no trouble working for her election. While she is not the system changer that Bernie would be, neither is she like the Republican contenders, clear enemies of working people, those who rely on government to protect them to some degree from the power of corporations and wealthy elites who rig our economic system in their favor.

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Knowledge vs. Ideology

The absurdity of tying teacher evaluations or the worth of a school’s academic program to student scores on standardized tests grows clearer and clearer to the point where only the ideologically bound to testing and punishing can unashamedly continue to advocate the practice. This morning NPR has a story about a study done in Sweden demonstrating that the mental health of a child’s parents can have a significant effect on student grades. The study conducted over a ten year period showed a strong connection between diagnosed depression in a parent and a student’s grades. The body of knowledge demonstrating that students, schools and teachers are more than a score continues to grow. What is growing more slowly is recognition by our political leaders that hitching their political career wagons to corporate sponsored test and punish school reform has been a major blunder. In November, New Yorkers will have an opportunity to make their error clearer to them.

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The Frightening Future of Work

I don’t use Uber and try to discourage others from doing so. I can easily understand how convenient it is and how it can be cost effective as well. But Uber’s existence is part of a growing trend in international business to find ways around having to provide decent wages and benefits to working people. It is a popular example of companies who have workforces of private contractors to whom the companies owe nothing beyond the agreed upon wages in the contract. Neil Irwin, writing in this morning’s New York Times, talks about this frightening practice that is a significant tool in the corporate sponsored attack on the social safety net. Irwin reports that 15.8 percent of American workers are now individual contractors, workers without employer provided health insurance, workers compensation or other employer provider protections. They have no possibility of union representation. They are essentially powerless and completely without means to gain any leverage with their employers. They owe no loyalty to any institution, and no one owes them anything. They are simply on their own in a country without the expansive social insurance programs of some other industrial democracies. Corporate propaganda is saying to America’s young that they must be prepared for this brave new economic world – that they must change jobs and whole careers many times during their work lives. The one hopeful sign I see is that the young are flocking to democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’ campaign, suggesting that they demand a more just society than the one on the horizon.

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The Lesson of Friedrichs

As we in the labor movement celebrate our victory in the Friedrichs Case, it’s important to remind ourselves of our vulnerabilities that the sponsors of this case sought to exploit – the sad fact that we have as many agency fee payers as we have. If all of our local unions had had an ongoing commitment of time money and energy to internal organizing, there is no doubt that the number of non-members would have been be significantly reduced. Before agency fee laws came into existence, there was much more effort made on workplace organizing because local unions had an existential reason to do it. Once we were assured of getting their money anyway, interest in convincing non-members to join was no longer a priority. The backers of the Friedrichs Case understand this weakness of ours and will continue to attempt to legally exploit it. While we may be feeling flush with victory today, this is not a time to rest easy. There will undoubtedly be further attacks against us. Our goal has to be to internally organize so successfully as to be immune to attacks that seek to cut off our resources. I deeply believe we could do this. My own local has always functioned on an organizing model. We are almost finished with our membership renewal drive undertaken to protect ourselves from an adverse decision in Friedrichs. I’m very pleased to say that almost every member is already signed up. Had Friedrichs gone against us, that decision would have had no impact on our ability to run our union and protect our members. As importantly, the union reps who did the leg work to re-sign our members for next year learned organizing skills that are easily transferable to other issues. Friedrichs was a good reminder for us of what is important to the welfare of our union.

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Early Retirement Trend

Every year at this time, I do a retirement workshop for the teacher and clerical units of our union. Most who come to the workshop are not quite ready to retire but are starting to make the necessary preparations for a decision that is a year or two away. Normally, we get between twenty to thirty members attending. This year, with reservations still coming in for a date next week, we have fifty-one members attending – almost nine percent of the membership. It’s hard to draw any other conclusion from this unusually high number of members interested in retirement than that their satisfaction with their work- lives is deteriorating. When one looks at the ages of the attendees, one is struck by how young many of them are, with some not yet eligible to retire but obviously thinking about doing so at the first opportunity.

In recent years, many of the things I have written have focused on the trend towards the deprofessionalization of teaching , the extent to which the work is becoming increasingly routinized and more and more devoid of opportunities for creativity and professional judgment. I think we are beginning to see the effects of that trend on the retirement decisions of teachers. If that is true, and if we add to it the fact that enrollment in New York’s schools of education is dramatically down, the future of even our best public schools is in jeopardy from a severe teacher shortage. It may be a radical idea, but teachers have a right to enjoy their work. Most seekers of earliest possible retirement are not.

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Opting Out in Defense of Public Education

Last week, with New York’s high stakes tests upon us, I wrote to the parents of the children asked to endure these useless exams asking them to consider opting their children out. The response to my letter has been so positive that I’ve chosen to make it my blog post for today. Here it is.

Dear POB Parents,
Last year over 50 percent of the POB parents of children in grades 3 through 8 refused to allow their children to take the New York State assessments in English and math. In so doing, they joined a rapidly growing movement of citizens (over 200,000 last year) who are fed up with the state’s regimen of high stakes tests that have increasingly turned our schools towards test prep rather than authentic education, stressed children unnecessarily and dispirited teachers whose evaluations were inappropriately tied to student scores on these exams. The testing season is again upon us.

While our members are active in the Opt-Out movement and are convinced that it affords citizens the best opportunity to end the damage done to our schools by Albany’s education policies, we deeply believe in the right of parents to decide what is right for them and their children. I assure you that whatever your decision, your children will be treated appropriately.

Our leaders in Albany would like you to believe that there is no longer any good reason to oppose the state assessments. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your children are still asked to take these stress producing exams, their scores are still reported as are teacher’s evaluation scores. While our new Commissioner of Education talks about changes to the tests and the standards to which they are aligned, it is completely clear that she believes in measuring the worth of schools and teachers on the basis of standardized tests.

Should you decide to join us in ending the tyranny of high stakes testing in New York by opting your child out, our district requires that you send a hard copy letter to that effect to the principal of your child’s school. I have enclosed a sample letter for your convenience.

I trust the day is not too far off when instruction in our schools is once again driven by the judgment of educators trained to work with children rather than bureaucrats of education testing companies. Until that time, our members will do whatever they can to ameliorate the negative effects of these tests on the education of your children.

Morton Rosenfeld

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Hope is Alive in New York

It’s not very often that one gets to see meteoric change in the direction of an institution. However, that’s what we witnessed the other day after the installation of Chancellor Dr. Betty Rosa who asked by a reporter whether if she had school age children she would opt them out, she replied with a resounding YES. That monosyllabic sound bite said that the process of reversing the catastrophic corporate sponsored test and punish school reform movement championed by outgoing chancellor Merryl Tisch is beginning without pause. It will no doubt take time to undo the serious damage Tisch and her agent John King wrought, but we have gotten an immediate sense from our new leader that there is reason to hope that we can find more reasonable and meaningful ways to assess students and provide for teacher accountability.

Some school leaders were put off by Rosa’s remarks, the superintendent of my own district for one. These critics confuse standardized testing with high standards of academic achievement. They do not see them for what they are – essentially instruments that measure the ability to pass standardized tests and artificial sorters of students into categories from which they often find it impossible to escape and progress. These critics ignore what growing numbers of parents and teachers have seen – a test driven transformation from educating children for adult citizenship to training them to be docile cogs in the corporate workforce. They are on the wrong side of history, having seriously underestimated the public’s willingness to swallow the crap they have offered up in the name of reform.

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I attended my school district’s leadership forum on Saturday morning, a yearly gathering of the leaders of the administration, our union, the PTA and the building administrators union. Each organization suggests topics of importance to the district for discussion. The one I found most interesting this year was on stress.

To my surprise, there was broad consensus among the groups as to the existence of unhealthy levels of stress and the causes of it. High stakes testing, over scheduling, the introduction of Common Core State Standards, homework, the effects of technology, competition, and economic uncertainty – the group had no trouble agreeing on stress producing causes. One parent’s eloquent remarks stayed with me all weekend. She talked about how she and her husband decided that all family members would give up the use of digital devices for Lent. She went on to describe the positive changes in her children’s behavior and the effect of this moratorium on their communication with one another. To someone like me who though I had been preaching to the wind in my comments about the downside of technology in education, it was remarkable to see how broadly understood the dangers are of technological advances unmediated by human judgment.

Yet, I strongly suspect that nothing will change as a result of this meeting. We will continue to shove age inappropriate curriculum down the throats of children, continue to purchase the latest technology products because every other district has them, continue to encourage children to take as many advanced courses as there are periods in the school day, continue to push kids into numerous extra-curricular activities in the process of resume building and generally continue the process of robbing children of their childhoods by encouraging them to live lives of unending scheduled activities. More and more, the lives of children will look like those of adults. We believe ourselves powerless to change the disastrous course we are on

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Shame on Schumer

Shame on Senator Chuck Schumer for his vote to confirm John King as the U. S. Secretary of Education. Beyond any doubt, Schumer is more than familiar with King’s abysmal record as Commissioner of Education in New York where in conjunction with his patron Merryl Tisch , the devilish duo inflicted a test and punish approach to public education that has shifted the mission of the public schools from one of educating children to training them to be test takers. Their efforts have dispirited New York’s teaching corps and seriously diminished the interest of the state’s young people in becoming teachers. King’s condescending arrogance, a crude mask for overwhelming incompetence, kindled New York’s opt-out movement, a parent led effort to protect their children from the disastrous Tisch/King policies. Interesting how the publicity addicted Schumer didn’t have one of his news conferences to brag about his vote for King. His Wall Street buddies, many of whom are financial supporters of the so-call education reform movement, are sure to be pleased by his vote.

A big thanks to New York’s other Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, for voting against King.

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Feeding the Portal

It seems as though each day brings some new insight as to the unintended consequences of the introduction of digital technologies to the operation of public schools.

In a discussion I was having with several colleagues about an increasing number of complaints from the parents of our community about the number of teacher made tests their children receive, one of person, somewhat angrily, blurted out, “I feed the portal all the time. The parents complain if we don’t have what they consider a sufficient number of scores on which to base our quarterly grades.” The portal she referred to is an online web based utility that permits parents to monitor everything from their children’s attendance to the completion of their homework assignments. So, because parents can now monitor their children’s grades 24/7, teachers feel compelled to give more tests and assignments to justify their grades leading to parents complaining about too many tests. A perfect system!

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We are living through a period in the history of public education when to be in the main stream the decisions of education need to be buttresses with data, or in what has become cliché – data driven. More and more teachers are asked to justify their practice by demands for evidence – numeric evidence. Yet amid all this data babble, huge, impactful decisions are made with little or no evidence at all. I have been dubious about the efficacy of technology in education to the point where some of my friends and colleagues accuse me of being a 21st century Luddite. I also haven’t bought the thesis that says that today’s students must all be trained in science, technology, engineering and math if they are to be gainfully employed and if the United States is to remain economically competitive. I’ve suspected that this meme was generated by business interests and gone viral before anyone stopped to actually see if there is any good evidence of its validity. In his new book, The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, Andrew Hacker undertakes a scholarly search for the evidence to support the idea that all public schools students should take higher mathematics in order to be prepared for the economy of their future. His conclusions will astonish only those who have been caught up in the latest education fads.

His central conclusion is that subjects like advanced algebra and calculus are artificial barriers to college admission and graduation. There is no evidence that any but a very few occupations require this knowledge. Neither is there any support for the notion that the kind of thinking required by these subjects is transferable to other areas of study or work. That’s not to say math is not worth studying and appreciating. It is to say that that the reasoning behind the Common Core math standards is essentially absurd and intellectually unsupportable. So too is all of the hype about the STEM economy of the future. Hacker cites a 2014 National Science Board study showing that 19.5 million Americans had a scientific or engineering degree at that time. However, only 28 percent of them were working in fields requiring their scientific credentials. The employment statistics for degree holders in computer science and math are even worse. Yet we tell youth that their ticket to prosperity needs to be stamped STEM.

Hacker will enrage both those who have propagated these myths and those who have swallowed them. However, they will be hard pressed to overcome the evidence he provides for his positions. This is an important book for the policy questions it raises but also for what it says about how we’ve come make consequential judgments about people on the basis of their math scores, scores which tell us next to nothing about them and their potential.

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