One Nation Under Taught by Vince M. Bertram

Subtitle: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering & Math Crisis

Published: 2014

Genre: nonfiction education

Length: 74 pages of text, 96 pages with Endnotes and Index

Interest: I saw it in the new books section at the library. It was short and about improving public education, particularly in STEM subjects. I was intrigued and figured I could read it without the book taking up too much of my time.

Summary: The author starts out discussing the fact that U.S. public school students are well behind their peers in other countries, based on a series of standardized tests. The U.S. has always been a bastion of innovation and growth, but we’re losing our edge because so few of our students are choosing to take up STEM careers. We need to change this trend if we want to stay dominant in the world’s economy. The author’s prescription for improvements are as follows:

To systematically improve overall student achievement, we must have a concerted effort that includes a variety of reforms such as longer school days, more instructional days in the school year, rewarding successful teachers, paying high-performing teachers more in salaries and bonuses, and changing the pedagogical approach in K-12 and post-secondary education. (p. 45)

Final thoughts: This turned out to be more of a rant-inducing book than anything useful to me. Pretty much every argument the author used annoyed me. To start with, he does all his comparisons between countries based on standardized test results. The only things standardized tests measure well is how well someone takes those kinds of tests. Yes, it’s the typical method of comparing students, but I have yet to be persuaded it’s a useful comparison. The author also wants American students to be more like Asian students, but I’ve seen analysis elsewhere that discusses all the negatives associated with the heavy-testing environment found in Asian schools (high suicide rates, limited creativity in workers, lack of free time).

So, let me analyze each of his methods to improve student performance:

1. Longer school days. I don’t think school days have gotten shorter than they were decades ago when the U.S. was an education powerhouse, so why should this be the first “solution”? More of a bad thing doesn’t make it any better. Besides, I don’t think kids need to sit in classrooms any more than they already do. In fact, I’d make the case that they’re sitting and listening too much already.

2. More instructional days. See my argument for #1

3. Rewarding successful teachers. Sure, this sounds great in principle, but the methodology for measuring who the successful teachers are is highly flawed. If you use a standardized test, teachers just teach to the test, and in the most extreme, cheat to do well. Value-added modeling is the latest method to measure the impact of the teacher on the learning process, and it makes statisticians pull their hair out. (I live with one, so I know). The biggest problem I see with my teacher friends isn’t that they aren’t being rewarding for successful teaching, it’s that they aren’t being allowed to use their successful teaching techniques. So often, they’re being told by administration to teach a certain way or use a specific evaluation (that they need to train their students to take) when the teachers already have a successful method to teach the concept. It’s frustrating.

4. Paying high-performing teachers more in salaries and bonuses. See my argument for #3. And besides, one of the big complaints about our schools is all the money we seem to be throwing at the schools with little to show for it. So, we’re going to throw more money at the schools? Where does all the money go, anyways, because it certainly isn’t going to teacher salaries and bonuses.

5. Changing the pedagogical approach. The author’s version of changing the pedagogical approach was to use his organization, Project Lead the Way, to change the STEM teaching. Turns out, the whole book is a commercial for his product. Not impressed.

Well, as you can tell, the book hit a bit of a nerve. My take-home message is don’t bother reading it. There’s nothing new or even all that useful in the book.

Title comes from: A play on words from the pledge of allegiance and the topic of the book.

Reading challenges fulfilled: None, since this was too short to count as a book.

If you’re interested in purchasing the book, you can click on the cover image or subtitle to follow an Amazon affiliate link to the book and thanks for supporting my blog!

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