Jeb Bush returned to the education policy arena this week with an opinion piece in the National Review in which he called for the nation to “massively disrupt our education system” with expanded school choice, online courses in hard-to-staff subjects like AP Calculus, and changes in the way teachers are evaluated and compensated.
Of course, Jeb Bush’s educational legacy in Florida is profound. The state’s programs in school choice, school grades and assessment can all be traced back to his time as Governor. Jeb’s effort to improve elementary school reading achievement by focusing the state’s attention on that area (“Just Read, Florida!”) was undeniably successful.
Unfortunately, just reading isn’t enough for students to grow up into citizens who can reliably make a middle class living in the world as it is now. It has become conventional wisdom that students with strong skills in math, science and computing have much stronger career prospects than those who do not. By choosing to declare victory based on progress in reading and declining to move on to similar efforts to improve student achievement in math and science, Jeb set the bar too low for Florida’s students. The bar for the state’s K-12 schools has remained stuck at that low level ever since.
But imagine if Jeb decided to take on the improvement of math and science education in a serious way. He is smart and not afraid of hard work. I believe his heart is in the right place – with students, especially those who have less than optimal learning opportunities. What if Jeb plowed through the research literature on how to improve student learning in math and science (particularly the physical sciences that are the basis of technological progress in engineering and computing) and then applied his famous wonkish doggedness to the policy issues involved in improving student achievement in math, science and computing? What would happen then?
Jeb would learn that the social interactions among students and between students and instructors are what Bob Beichner calls the “secret sauce” in improving math and science learning. Jeb would abandon the idea that the solution to the problem of access to advanced math and science courses in underserved schools (both rural and urban) is to beam in recorded lectures. Instead, he would understand that somehow, some way, we need to find a way to offer math and science classroom experiences that are socially engaging and hands-on – even for students isolated in a remote corner of Okeechobee County. Yes, technology could probably be used to achieve such a thing – a group of students in one rural county tightly connected in real time to similar groups in several other rural counties and to a skilled instructor who could be anywhere else, even thousands of miles away. But it wouldn’t be cheap, which seems to have been one of the goals of resorting to recorded lectures online all along.
And Jeb would realize one important thing about what it would take to recruit the teaching corps necessary to significantly improve math and science education: While most college graduates in our society can read well enough to teach reading (although there are plenty of people who can read well who cannot teach reading), there are still relatively few people in our society, even among college graduates, who can do math well enough to teach even Algebra 1, do science well enough to teach chemistry or physics, or program a computer well enough to teach coding. And because of market forces, people who can do math, science or programming well enough to teach it are in higher demand – and therefore more expensive – than people who cannot.
There are those who blame Jeb for the decline and fall of science instruction in Florida. I do not. Science instruction in Florida was awful and neglected long before Jeb became Governor.
But for those who still think of Jeb bitterly as the Governor who damaged math and science instruction through his “Just Read” campaign, consider this: It took Nixon to go to China.
Jeb could revolutionize K-12 math and science education in Florida. He just has to decide to do so.