Symptoms of Failure

It’s a farce, and kids know it.  When students ask in math class, “When am I ever going to use this?” let’s stop answering with references to calculating bank interest, prices per pound, and the cost of a sale item.  To many students, math is pointless because we decreasingly apply those skills in the kind of isolation in which they are taught.  Sales signs, packaging labels, and iPhones do remedial work for us.  And if – God forbid – we are ever without our technology and trying to calculate the cost of a clearance shirt, we’ll simply go to a nearby scanner mounted on a pole.

Math and science are much more important, substantial, and powerful than we tell kids.  But, not the way we teach it.  Math is not a worksheet and science is not a scientific method poster.  I don’t need comparisons to other countries to know that both our public and private systems are failing miserably.  Further, I’m no expert in the Norwegian math curriculum, but I’d bet they’re failing their children, too.  We talk number sense and critical thinking, but evidence abounds that even adults don’t understand these concepts.  Why?  Because we too are victims of a negligent math and science curriculum.  And, as they say, the abused often become the abusers.

All the evidence we need is provided by the adult who laments the eery bad luck of always picking the “wrong line” in a grocery checkout.  Of four possible lanes, for example, there is a 75% chance that that person would not be in the “right one.”  It’s provided by the thousands of Americans who opted to drive instead of fly in the 18 months after 9/11.  Sociologists calculate that over 1,000 more people were killed in road accidents – in the far more dangerous automobile – during that period.  It’s provided when someone reads a headline that screams, “Home invasions have increased 150%!” and they don’t think to ask, “How many home invasions were there, before?  And, what proportion of homes are being invaded?”

In a society with a well-designed and delivered math curriculum, we would understand both the destructive and constructive power of exponential growth.  We would realize that several occurrences of almost anything, no matter how loud the headlines, are likely in a large sample and not necessarily a crisis of epidemic proportions.  And, we would take comfort in knowing that, statistically, school is the safest place a child can be.

A population that was truly served by their math and science education would be less subject to advertising and media manipulation. It would provide a more informed electorate. People would demand useful and complete data.  And, most importantly, we would be able to analyze and apply that information.  In essence, we could make better sense of the world around us.

How do we break the cycle? When do we stop talking about teaching number sense, problem solving, and critical thinking, and actually do it?  We won’t need a test to see the impact, either; it will be obvious when you can’t buy a Powerball ticket because we will truly understand what the odds are.



Mike Lee

Mike Lee

Phoenix, Arizona

I am the Director of Outreach and Engagement for The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and certified as a Middle Childhood Generalist in 2004. In 2012, I received my doctorate in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University, however, I began my work in education serving as a para-educator in a special education program while still an undergraduate. My passions in the field include assessment and reporting strategies, the evolving role of technology, teacher leadership, and effective professional development that permanently impacts instruction. I consider myself a professional teacher first, as well as a professionally evolving lifelong learner, who is incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to impact the lives of children.

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