When Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Va., recently renovated its classrooms, Vern Williams, who might be the best math teacher in the country, had to fight to keep his blackboard. The school was putting in new “interactive whiteboards” in every room, part of a broader effort to increase the use of technology in education. That might sound like a welcome change. But this effort, part of a nationwide trend, is undermining American education, particularly in mathematics and the sciences. It is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.
I went to see Williams because he was famous when I was in middle school 20 years ago, at a different school in the same county. Longfellow’s teams have been state champions for 24 of the last 29 years in MathCounts, a competition for middle schoolers. Williams was the only actual teacher on a 17-member National Mathematics Advisory Panel that reported to President Bush in 2008.
Williams doesn’t just prefer his old chalkboard to the high-tech version. His kids learn from textbooks that are decades old–not because they can’t afford new ones, but because Williams and a handful of his like-minded colleagues know the old ones are better. The school’s parent-teacher association buys them from used bookstores because the county won’t pay for them (despite the plentiful money for technology). His preferred algebra book, he says, is “in-your-face algebra. They give amazing outstanding examples. They teach the lessons.”