Saturday, March 21, 2009

No More Doubt (Or "Ms.-I-Know-Better-Than-They" Speaks)

So, I suppose, as is very normal when one is laid off from her job, I'd begun to doubt myself. I'd begun to think maybe I was wrong all along about the writing I thought I could so clearly see all over the walls outside our company. Maybe that wasn't the true writing on the wall. Maybe it was just some math geek who'd gotten hold of a can of spray paint and in some odd moment of rebellion, a moment of anger, when he was tired of always playing second fiddle, had riddled the walls with equations that hid all the written words underneath.

I'd visited all kinds of schools, from those who knew our company well to those who'd never heard of our company. I'd sat in on meetings of The National Math Panel that were open to the public. I'd talked to teachers at conferences. What I thought I'd been hearing was a push for math in every type of school in the country, that literacy coaches were being let go in order to make room for more math coaches. I thought I'd heard that in some schools, the time periods being allotted to language arts were being cut in order to make more time for math. I thought I'd heard that the federal government now understood the need for more research money for math, because when members of the National Math Panel tried to turn to research to find answers to their questions (for instance, what sorts of effects does calculator use in the elementary grades have), they found very little current research to do so. I thought that in all the presidential and vice-presidential debates I watched last fall, I heard a focus on math and science when questions about education arose. I thought I'd heard, over and over again, when listening to those who discussed how our students hold up to those in the rest of the world, people bemoaning our kids' lack of mathematical skills.

I thought I'd heard Thomas Friedman a few years ago stand up in front of an auditorium full of math educators and tell us that the best jobs in the future were going to be for those with strong mathematical and problem-solving skills. He told us that our country was not going to remain as powerful as it is if we kept up our practice of hiring those from overseas for so many of our jobs that required scientific and mathematical knowledge. He encouraged those with young children to get them interested in science now, before it was too late. And I thought I'd begun to hear that, after years of ignoring it, science is beginning to garner attention again in the world of education.

Last week, I decided I must have been suffering from a hearing disorder. Maybe I needed to have my ears cleaned. My colleagues were probably right to ignore me when I blathered on about math and science. I, alone, may not have known exactly what tools are needed by educators right now in the areas of math and science, but what I thought I understood was that they do need something. They certainly don't have what they need right now, which is why our students continue to do so poorly in math and science. I was convinced that if I had some help, that if we could put together all the bright heads at our company to start coming up with new ideas, that if a company existed that truly focused on trying to solve this problem, on trying to give teachers what they really need in math and science, that the company would be extremely successful. Perhaps my convictions were wrong. After all, many of my colleagues have been in the business much longer than I have; many of them have actually been classroom teachers. Maybe they had a far better handle on what was happening than I had.

But then I read an article in our local paper that Barak Obama himself says that when it comes to reforming NCLB, a focus on problem solving is at the top of his list. That, my friends, is math. Then I read that Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, in addressing attendees at the National Science Teachers Association meeting, says we are entering a "new era" in science teaching. Duncan also cited a $5-billion dollar "race to the top" fund that will reward states that are already embracing innovation and taking "reform-minded" approaches. So, this is where the money will be.

Ahh, that writing on the wall is real. Those equations are there. Teachers who are skilled at problem solving and who are approaching math and science in an innovative fashion are going to be the ones who succeed and who give our students what they most need, so that they, in turn, can become successful. Teachers are going to need resources to help them develop those skills, because they don't know where to begin, especially since most of them are products of school systems that have not been teaching math and science in this fashion. The companies that have been reading this writing on the wall for the past five years are about to reap the benefits.

Thus, I will go on record saying I wasn't wrong. I may have been trying to force a square peg into a round hole, but I wasn't wrong. I will even be so bold as to say that companies that decide to focus on selling goods and services into schools to help their teachers reform the way they teach math and science will be ones that, in the next ten years or so, are not only going to survive but are going to thrive. I can't wait to see it happen, because I, for one, am tired of living in an innumerate society.

Educate our kids to understand (really understand, not just spit back rote procedures) numbers, and they won't be so easily fooled by Wall Street moguls eager to line their own pockets while driving average workers into deeper and deeper debt. They'll understand how much they're really paying for that new computer if they charge it to a credit card with an 18% interest rate and only make minimum payments every month. Maybe they'll learn to save up for such major purchases. Maybe they'll be skeptical when told they get a "free" cell phone with their 2-year-service contract that can't be broken without paying an outrageous fee. And maybe, just maybe, when they begin running companies themselves, they will understand the importance of talented employees and will make sure they have the money to pay them instead of wasting money on private jets, off-site meetings in luxurious vacationland spots, and company cars for all the managers.

Meanwhile, when I'm in one of my more positive moods, I'm kind of glad that I'm no longer stuck trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It's nothing but frustrating for all parties involved. Right now, I'm taking a little time off, but when I start looking for a job again, I'm going to be seeking out companies with square holes. And if I can't find them? Well, I just might have to start one of my own.


Susan said...

Dear Square Peg: If you didn't fit the round hole company, there must be some other square pegs ones out there, certainly ones who are receptive to what you are saying, because what you are saying is what the educators up here have also been saying for a while: we need better math skills, and literacy skills. Math so, as you say, interest rates aren't some imaginary figure, but real money to be paid back, and also so there is a basic understanding of economics. I'm so sorry you got laid off; it's much better to have the square peg companies come looking for you. It's very good to know you are on the level as the President, though, when it comes to figuring out what educators need!

Speaking as someone who just got steamrollered at work for not producing enough, even though there are no measurable standards currently part of the job description - and the ones we use can't be appreciably measured except singly, one at a time, there are a lot more square pegs out there than you know, so don't lose hope! Wasn't there a tv show once about Square Pegs? I loved it.....signed, Square Peg in Canada

litlove said...

You go, girl! As I was reading this, I couldn't help but recall all the stupid decisions the publishing industry makes - how often over the past 30 years it has consistently,stubbornly looked in the wrong direction. You're right to take some time off now to think all this through. Then you'll be ready to take the world by storm.

shelter volunteer said...

Amen. And time off is a very good thing after the square peg experiences.

I own the DVD set too. Sarah Jessica Parker, before she was famous. :)

Anonymous said...

How did I miss that you got laid off? Sorry to hear it since you loved your job so much. But on the positive side it seems like this could turn into a good thing given the square peg situation. I hope you find a bunch of other square pegs to work with because from the sound of it there will be lots of exciting things to look forward to in math and science and the publisher that has the innovative materials and the knowledgeable and enthusiastic people like you will be serving our educators and our children well.

Bob said...

Emily: Follow your heart in this matter. The best square hole companies will be small, nimble, and as passionate about math and science education as you. There will be start-ups who will recognize the opportunities that will be funded by the new administration. Beware the big round hole, even if it is large enough for a little square to fit into (for the present)!

Emily Barton said...

Susan (or is it fellow square peg), yes, I am sure there are other square peg companies where I just might fit right at home, and how frustrating your experience of being steamrollered at work sounds. Maybe you need to find a nice square hole as well.

Litlove, I hope the world can handle my brand of storm (you just know it will be a blizzard, followed by lots of thunder and lightening, right?).

Stef, yes, I think there WILL be lots of exciting things, and I'm hoping I can do my part to make a difference.

Bob, following my heart is the best advice I've gotten. And you're right: small, nimble, and passion are what I'm seeking. I will do my best not to be tempted by any big, round holes.