Where the Education System Fails

Originally published in the Grand Rapids Business Journal, April 10, 2006

Right. So if a child (yours or otherwise) ever comes to you to ask for help with math homework, what’s your first question? “Can’t your Mother/Father help you instead?” No. C’mon now. You can do this. “Why the hell do you need to know that stuff?” Definitely not! It’s what you’re thinking; it’s what they’re thinking. But saying it out loud is not helpful. “Can you wait until my show is over?” Okay, I see that I’m going to have to tell you.

The correct answer is “How did they teach you to solve the problem?”. I’m fairly good at math and, consequently, I’m usually the parent that helps with math homework. Early on, I was Mr. Smartypants and would grab a fresh sheet of paper and show my kids examples of how I would solve the problem. And I would get the right answer. But when I’d turned to give my kids my best “aren’t you lucky to have me?” smile, they’d just groan. “That’s not how taught us how to do that.” Little ingrates. Stupid teachers. Damnable uh,… other people who, um…. Soon I learned to take a minute to look at their text book first. Math isn’t always about getting the right answer; it’s often about showing you understand how to get the right answer.

See? Like most things, life — *real* life — is more complicated than you hope (and, therefore, think). Take, for example, writing comprehensive laws for primary education. Michigan just passed a law that significantly increases standard requirements for earning a high school diploma. This is generally a good thing and certainly well-intentioned. But it will take much, much more than simply passing the law to make it successful. I’ll be interested to see the state government’s reaction when they find out they aren’t Mr. Smartypants.

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