Part 2: “Why Americans Stink at Math,” and implications for digital learning

The last blog post explored the findings in Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book, Building a Better Teacher, and identified parallels in digital education. A short excerpt about Common Core captures the issues:

“…teachers are once more being asked to unlearn an old approach and learn an entirely new one, essentially on their own. Training is still weak and infrequent, and principals — who are no more skilled at math than their teachers — remain unprepared to offer support.”

Replace “math” with “digital learning” in the above paragraph and it perfectly describes many digital learning implementations. The point about administrators being no more skilled than teachers is particularly applicable. Teachers are being asked to design, implement, and evaluate the many components of these new programs with little or no experience—and without administrators who are more experienced.

The risks and challenges that Green documents that are related to math instruction apply broadly to blended learning. Perhaps as importantly, they may foreshadow the way that a backlash could be generated against education reform that advocates for the use of digital content and tools. In discussing the counterattack against Common Core, she quotes a prominent and influential conservative:

By God,” wrote Erick Erickson, editor of the website RedState, in an anti-Common Core attack, is it such “a horrific idea that we might teach math the way math has always been taught.

I suppose the answer to Erickson’s question depends on whether one is satisfied with an education system in which one in five students don’t graduate from high school on time, in part due to students' inability to pass algebra, and between 20% and perhaps 35% of those who do graduate require remedial courses in college because they are unprepared to begin entry-level college study.

Whether the focus is on math or all of education, the failure of reforms—Common Core, personalized learning, or any other—gives room for opponents to say we should just do what we’ve always been doing. That sentiment subsequently paves the way for millions of additional students to drop out of high school or college, with all the attendant implications for jobs, income, and family and social stability.

But the long list of issues and concerns documented by Green shouldn’t lead us to throw up our hands and say, “it can’t be done.” Reform can be implemented successfully, and some schools are demonstrating the path forward. Those schools know, and this story reminds us, of several key principles of the change to digitally-enabled personalized learning:

  1. It requires extensive professional development for teachers and administrators. In most cases the time required to master these teaching techniques is far higher than the professional development time that educators receive.
  1. It is going to take years to implement. Advocates for blended learning must expect that for a sizable district, a large-scale change will take perhaps five years in order to introduce, pilot, evaluate, and grow it to the point of reaching most students.
  1. When hearing of a blended learning implementation, every advocate, researcher, and policymaker should ask the question,  "How much time is devoted to teacher and administrator professional development?" The common questions about digital content, technology platforms, devices, and Internet infrastructure, are all important but miss the hardest area to change—behavior in the classroom.
  1. Every person in charge of budgets should expect to see allocations for professional development that are much larger than they have typically been in the past. Every request for computers or digital content should be accompanied by an explanation of the professional development that will be tied to it.

A final quote from Green’s article in the New York Times captures this long-term thinking well, in a discussion of how Japan was able to change its approach to math instruction.

“Of all the lessons Japan has to offer the United States, the most important might be the belief in patience and the possibility of change. Japan, after all, was able to shift a country full of teachers to a new approach. Telling me his story, Kurita quoted what he described as an old Japanese saying about perseverance: “Sit on a stone for three years to accomplish anything.”

I don’t know that sitting on a stone will create change in education, but anticipating the need to be patient for three years seems about right.