Friedberg: stupid textbooks + stupid teachers = stupid kids

Okay–though he doesn’t exactly say this in his December 11th op-ed, which could essentially serve as both a plug for the Common Core and an advertisement for profiteering corporations like Pearson (and which Paul Thomas suggests is the “Worst Education Op-Ed of 2013“), Solomon Friedberg reflects on America’s “appalling” PISA scores and wonders if our students can ever “get smart.” In short, Friedberg concludes that the Common Core is the answer to our country’s educational woes, but that we need to focus on three issues: textbooks, teachers, and testing.

Where to begin…

Textbooks: while I don’t think anyone would disagree that students should be working with the best materials available to them, in placing so much importance on textbooks (he says they not only shape students’ understanding, but that teachers are essentially useless without them–more on that later), Friedberg has effectively reinforced the narrow, myopic approach to education that so many critics of the Common Core decry. If disaggregated PISA scores clearly show that students living in poverty perform worse than their more affluent counterparts (see here and here, to start; and yes, we are the “most affluent country in the world,” but we also have the second-highest rate of children living in poverty among the world’s richest nations), are new textbooks really the answer Friedberg makes them out to be?? It’s glaringly ironic that as proponents of RTTT reforms complain our students aren’t being prepared to compete “globally,” they fixate on antiquated, drill-and-kill test preparation and testing that reduces students and their teachers to numbers in a database and hurts special-education and economically/socially disadvantaged children. Textbooks as a cure-all?  What year is it?

And even if, as Friedberg claims, “for Common Core to succeed, we desperately need new textbooks that are fundamentally different,” how will districts pay for them?  If urban districts–which have larger concentrations of struggling students–are operating on bare-bones, “doomsday” budgets so paltry that officials must ask citizens to donate pencils, paper, and tissues to schools, how will such districts afford new, expensive textbooks–especially given the amount of money they’re forced to spend on the testing that accompanies the CCSS?

And perhaps more importantly, who’ll profit handsomely when cash-strapped districts that are already starved of resources and staff are forced to buy new textbooks? And who will suffer immeasurably?

Rhetorical questions.  Moving on.

After his call for “fundamentally different” textbooks, Friedberg says that “teachers are the heart of the enterprise” of American education.  I’ll ignore the connotative meaning of “enterprise” that’s suggestive of business and profits for a second and focus instead on the fact that in the few sentences that follow this declaration, Friedberg manages to insult the “heart of the enterprise” by insisting that since they themselves learned from the flawed textbooks he describes, they are effectively unable to a) understand the concepts that they’re teaching, and b) “handle Common Core.”  But most offensive is Friedberg’s depiction of teachers as ignorant, struggling, confused souls who are so incapable of understanding the concepts they’re teaching that if not for a good textbook, they’re unable to master their content–as if there are no resources available to teachers in 2013. Friedberg then compares American teachers to teachers from Singapore who in the 1990s “had not even had four years of university instruction” yet were saved by newly-designed textbooks that were “so clear that they taught the teachers.” I’m not a math teacher, but I’m insulted by this depiction of American educators as hapless, unqualified novices whose efficacy as teachers and understanding of their content depend solely on the quality their students’ textbooks.

So really, it’s a wonder that any of us–educators or not–were able to survive school and develop into productive members of society.  If you’re managing to function despite an academic experience plagued by bad math textbooks and confused teachers, pat yourself on the back. Really–you did it.  Somehow.

Oh, and those tests: Friedberg says we should just make sure they’re really good so we can justify teaching to them.

If Professor Friedberg can oversimplify the teaching and learning processes–and ignore the real causes of many of our students’ troubles–to suggest ways the Common Core can fix our educational “stagnation,” I’ll take the liberty of oversimplifying his argument as I interpret it: we need to spend millions on new textbooks and millions on new tests to help justify the millions we’re spending on the Common Core. Only then will we be able to break the cycle of stupidity that’s polluting our society.

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3 responses to “Friedberg: stupid textbooks + stupid teachers = stupid kids

  1. Pingback: The Commodification of Learning | SoshiTech

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