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Vaccinate your children against irrelevance

May 12, 2010
Jeffrey Weld
Des Moines Register
August 3, 2009

Jeffrey Weld, Ph.D.
Director, Iowa Mathematics & Science Education Partnership

Across Iowa in the coming weeks, tens of thousands of teenagers will return to school to begin fall classes. Scheduling decisions made last spring are now up for re-examination. Did Mary load up on core courses or take an elective? Will Andrew stick with algebra to be with the buddies, or switch to the Honors section where he belongs? Sleeping in till 2nd hour sounded great to Chantelle, but now she wonders if she should take that early computer class. Jerome can’t decide whether to chill for senior year or slog through physics. Lifestyles and livelihoods hang in the balance here, but adolescent brains aren’t wired for the long view. It is up to parents, in consult with teachers and counselors, to channel and challenge kids to prepare themselves for the world that awaits. That world is a technological one. The best chance for contributing to it as a future voter, consumer, parent, and career builder will, for most students, take solid backgrounds in math and science. Of the top 50 jobs for Iowa, according to a May 3, 2009 Des Moines Register insert, most require coursework in chemistry, statistics, biology, computers, and other science and mathematics fields.

We parents are in the best position to see to it that schools essentially vaccinate our kids against irrelevance before graduating. We dutifully took care of the immunizations they needed for admission to school in the first place, bravely smiling into their unsuspecting faces while the doctor approached with a needle full of dead measles and whooping cough, polio, tetanus, and more. Shouldn’t we make sure that before they leave school our children have acquired immunity to dead-end jobs and extinct ways of thinking?  Ultimately community schools embody the spirit of their communities, for better and sometimes for worse. “No government policy will make any difference,” said President Obama in a recent education speech, “unless we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents…” Globally-minded citizens have great influence, through their actions, to support progressive schooling toward socially and economically competent graduates. And the tardy bell has rung.

The most successful schools enjoy the engagement of parents at two different levels. First, direct impact on the decisions of children—their classes, teachers, depth of study—can make the difference between senior year study hall or science elective. A second level of engagement involves connecting with teachers and classrooms to bring the assets of the community to bear on curriculum. Parents and community leaders who operate businesses, for example, stand to gain as much as they give by partnering with teachers to enrich the curriculum through internships, tours, lesson ideas, and global perspectives. A state and national push for more relevance and rigor in the way STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects are being taught opens a window of opportunity for re-shaping by teams of stakeholders within and outside of school.

"Any number of old-school assignments--memorizing the battles of the Civil War or the periodic table of the elements--now seem faintly absurd,” wrote Time Magazine’s Claudia Wallace recently. “That kind of information, which is poorly retained unless you routinely use it, is available at a keystroke.” Instead, the new premium is creative cross-disciplinary thinking, communication, information evaluation, and problem solving.

These are the world-class attributes embodied in Iowa’s Core Curriculum and deserved by every Iowa graduate. An arsenal of such thinking skills is a vaccine against irrelevance. To achieve them requires that parents and communities partner in the enterprise of education.  

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the Iowa Mathematics & Science Education Partnership. He can be reached at