Monday, September 29, 2008

Education Problem Solving 101: Define the actual problem

I am often amazed out the lack of problem solving in America’s schools. We jump to a solution without ever truly analyzing the problem. Two examples:

Problem 1: not enough kids take the SAT in Philadelphia schools. The solution: pay for SAT prep courses for all high school juniors and pay for them to take the SAT. The result: since the students were so woefully behind in their learning, they could not take advantage of the preparation. It was very sad to see these students finish all they could do on the SAT in about 10 minutes and sit there the rest of the time. Real problem: they were not prepared for high school and need remediation so that they have a chance on the SAT then they you can pay for them to take it.

Problem 2: not enough kids take algebra in middle school. The Solution: force kids to take algebra. The result: since the students were so far behind in math, the “algebra class” became remedial math class and scores stay flat. If you can’t multiply and divide (because you were busy feeling good about math and not actually learning your math tables), you will not succeed.

Now there is a study from Brookings that proves how misguided this approach is. His conclusion – we need to improve math instruction, accountability and testing at the elementary level if students are going to succeed in middle and high school math.

Take it a step further - - you have to improve the math knowledge of our elementary teachers if we are going to improve math instruction – or move to a specialist model. If you teacher is uncomfortable with math, then their students are going to be uncomfortable with math. In our field studies of ABCTE exams, we become acutely aware of the lack of math skills in elementary teachers.

In real problem solving the first step is to define the problem. Until we fix our elementary schools, it will not matter what solutions you implement in middle and high school.

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