The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
There are many who lust for the simple answers of doctrine or decree. They are on the left and right. They are not confined to a single party of the society. They are terrorists of the mind.....  ...A. Bartlett Giamatti (final baccalaureate address, Yale University, May 28, 1986.
Commentary of the Day - Feb. 20, 2000: The View from Inside the Beltway:
The Irascible Professor has been coping with life inside the "Beltway" for the past few days.  (For those of you who live in the real world, the "Beltway" is that murderous stretch of highway - US-495 - that encircles Washington, DC.)  It marks the line of demarcation that separates the world of ordinary people from the world of the politician and the politically connected.  Outside the Beltway the pace is slower.  People generally put their lives in some sort of perspective.  Most people know that the things that matter most to them are highly personal.  They know that they really can't do much to change the world, so they more or less go with the flow.  To be sure, they often try to brighten the corners of their existence.  They tinker with laws and programs at the state and local level, but except for a few fanatics those efforts occupy only a small fraction of the average person's waking hours.

Inside the Beltway things are different.  There exists a whole cadre of people - politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats - who are sure that what they are doing matters.  They have confidence that, in fact, they are changing the world.  You can see it in the eyes of the people in the Metro stations, and in the way they stride impatiently along the sidewalks of the nation's capital on their way to their offices and meeting rooms.  There is a certain intensity in the step and a certain steely glint in the eye that says "what I'm doing counts".

Everything that happens inside the Beltway, whether intrinsically important or curiously mundane, takes on a political tone.  That's certainly true of the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which the IP has been covering since Friday morning.  The IP is at the meeting (as both a scientist and a member of the press) because the AAAS is deeply involved in the business of science and mathematics education.  It is influential in setting the agenda for science and math education in the nation both through its professional development efforts for teachers and through its ability to set de facto standards. Project 2061 is a major effort by the AAAS to increase the scientific literacy of all students.  Additionally, the AAAS Directorate of Education and Human Resources is active in a number of other areas of math and science education.

So far the IP has attended sessions on "Integrating Technology into Science Education", on "Teaching Mathematics to Children and Adolescents", and on "Shaping the Future Learning of Mathematics and Science".  Three key threads wove their way through all three of these sessions.  First, the activists who drive new pedagogical efforts and new standards are becoming keenly aware of the political implications of new curricular standards in math and science education for K-8 students.  Second, there seems to be a growing realization that teachers are central to the success of any  math or science teaching effort.  Third, the research effort in science and math education is relatively weak and fragmented.  There is some research that tells us what does not work too well.  And, there is some, but not a convincing body of research informing us about what does work.  This perhaps is not too surprising since teaching and learning depends on many variables, and it almost never is possible to control them all in empirical studies.  Because of this lack of convincing evidence, much of the debate over curriculum and standards boils down to arguments about values and philosophy.

The IP will be commenting in more detail about the issues of curricular standards, pedagogical effectiveness, teacher preparation, and the politicization of education in the days to come.

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