“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood,” proclaimed Marie Curie, the renowned early 20th-century Polish-French scientist. “Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
November marks the anniversary of Madame Curie’s birth in 1867. Nicknamed the “scientific Joan of Arc” for her intellectual courage, she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize (1903) and the first person to win a second Nobel (1911) for her groundbreaking work in two different scientific disciplines, physics and chemistry. Curie discovered radium and polonium, and coined the term “radioactivity” to characterize their elemental properties.
Born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, she was the youngest of five children whose parents were noted teachers. Marie was taught in Poland’s roving, clandestine “Flying University” that enrolled 5,000 women and evaded official Tsarist Russian control over Polish education.
Ultimately, Madame Curie became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in physics and the first female professor at France’s Sorbonne University. “A great discovery does not issue from a scientist’s brain ready-made,” she advised. “[I]t is the fruit of an accumulation of preliminary work.”
But as curricular expert E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and mathematicians have pointed out for decades, the progressive pedagogy that dominates American K-12 education routinely denigrates and trivializes the indispensable role of core knowledge, memorization, and the automatic recall of math facts. Years of dismal performance on virtually every national and international math and science test demonstrate that the anti-knowledge agenda of U.S. education schools is academically irresponsible.
American schooling’s ongoing struggle with innumeracy is brought on by its embrace of nonsensical fads, including “new math,” “constructivist math,” and “Common Core math,” that have failed to produce success for our nation’s pupils. Today we work hard at promoting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning for young women, yet with such weak foundations in these subjects, most students are set up for disappointment.
Washington, D.C.’s K-12 edu-blob too often escapes accountability for the nation’s mediocre scholastic performance. After all, it was the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and Achieve, Inc. that promulgated the dumbed-down Common Core math and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
The NGSS offer more edu-jargon with empty platitudes about “thinking like a scientist” and workforce development, which conflicts with Curie’s example by placing vague utilitarianism over quality academic content grounded in STEM.
“[W]hen radium was discovered, no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals,” Marie Curie said. “The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it.”
Until recently, one outlier in America’s academic decline has been Massachusetts, with its intellectually serious STEM frameworks and high-stakes tests. From 2005 to 2017, Bay State students outperformed those from every other state on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2007 and 2011, Massachusetts ranked among the world’s highest-achieving countries in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study testing.
Sadly, in 2010 the Commonwealth abandoned its proven math standards for $250 million in one-time federal grant money. With those dollars came nationalized Common Core math, which leaves students two years behind their international peers.
Massachusetts’ 2011-2017 implementation of Common Core has been accompanied by dramatic drops in NAEP math scores, placing the state among those experiencing the largest math decline. Making matters worse, the Commonwealth also recently discarded its nation-leading science frameworks in favor of the gravely inferior NGSS standards.
The nation’s 2015 NAEP math scores, the worst in decades, were unchanged in 2017, and recently released ACT math scores were the worst in 20 years. Our Potomac-area policy pedagogues can’t ever seem to deliver any results.
“They’re not bad creatures …” the young Marie wrote about the institutionalized ignorance she observed during her rise. “[B]ut their education has done nothing to develop their minds … [which has] … ended by frittering their wits away.”
Madame Curie revolutionized human understanding of physics and chemistry, while overcoming her era’s limitations on women. As we honor her world-changing accomplishments, let’s draw inspiration from her fearless intelligence and expel the Beltway’s micromanaging K-12 policymakers from our nation’s classrooms.
Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank and Ze’ev Wurman is an executive with a semiconductor startup in Silicon Valley and a former senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.