How Implementation Problems Bedevil New Ed. Initiatives

By Ross Brenneman — March 01, 2014 3 min read
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There’s nothing like a recession to add urgency to financial literacy.

Utah was the first state to have a standalone personal finance course, starting in 2004. Now 17 states require a high school financial course of some kind. Several states had requirements in place before the Great Recession, but the economic collapse added fresh urgency.

But financial literacy is a good example of how states may push for education policy changes that could provide real benefit to students (and, subsequently, to society), but where implementation can cause big headaches. (Sound familiar?)

The Council on Economic Education, to help with implementation, even released national standards for financial literacy in April 2013. Yet only six of the aforementioned 17 states require testing in financial literacy, as my colleague Liana Heitin notes over at Curriculum Matters.

But that’s not the only challenge. The Oklahoman recently ran an article about the state’s present current senior class, the first required to graduate under the state’s mandate since its adoption in 2007. Some districts in the state are struggling with the change, unsure of the best method for integration into other subjects, and lacking state funding to hire financial literacy teachers.

Meanwhile, a new Education Week story highlights the similar rise of computer science classes, which have likewise been spurred on by a changing economy. With computer science, states have yet to pursue mandates, but many states are changing graduation requirements to make computer science an eligible replacement to traditional core courses like math and science.

Great, right? Students who don’t see the point of calculus are instead able to learn computer science, which draws heavily from mathematical concepts. Except that, against the wishes of computer science advocates, some states have taken to allowing computer science to take the place of foreign-language requirements. This might seem like brilliant forethought for when machines take over the Earth, but what if the whole human-based global economy (see Financial Literacy, above) lasts for a while?

Here’s the other issue:

States end up dealing with what Ms. Ericson of Georgia Tech calls a ‘chicken-and-egg problem': Teacher-certification programs won’t train teachers because there’s no state computer science certification, and the state won’t create a certification program because there’s no teacher training for it.

Then consider this report by my colleague Catherine Gewertz, about the struggle of districts that adopted the Common Core State Standards earlier than most, yet continue to struggle with implementation. Teachers in these districts lack good common-core-aligned curricula, adequate professional development, and yet have expectations to meet as tests loom.

There’s plenty of room to argue about the merits of financial literacy or computer science or common standards, but weak implementation can clearly threaten whatever promise those ideas hold. Whether on concussion law or anti-bullying policies or sex education, no two states have the same implementation strategy, and the aforementioned reports show that when those strategies underperform, they leave schools, and especially teachers, in difficult situations.

When the Academy Awards air on Sunday, you’ll see a Philip Seymour Hoffman clip somewhere during the “In Memoriam” segment showing some of his great work, but one moment in Hoffman’s career that comes to mind is from the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Hoffman, playing a CIA agent, explains to the title character that wars don’t end when one side wins; there’s a whole lot to do afterward.

Put another way, there’s a reason that good golf swings don’t stop when a player hits the ball; it’s called “follow-through” for a reason.

Image: Financial literacy classes in Oklahoma may include a note that commemorative quarters are still only worth 25 cents. —U.S. Mint

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.