Conversation Starter

Fifty Years in the Making

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

At first glance it seemed like an unlikely place for an extended philosophical discussion of education. Then again perhaps it was the perfect setting for teachers, young and old, to gain an appreciation for the potential lifelong impact of their classrooms and consequently the heavy responsibility that possible outcome brings with it.

And to think it was supposed to be simply a 50-year high school reunion.

Oldies but goodies

For the sake of full disclosure I must explain that recently I was dragged by my best friend thousands of miles, kicking and screaming most of the journey, to a gathering of my high school class of 1964. For my buddy this event was just another in a long series of these get-togethers. Of course he had good reasons to relish these meetings—fifty years ago he had been the star of the state championship football team, steady date of the captain of the cheerleading squad and on his way to a scholarship to the University of Virginia. I, the owner of a significantly lower social profile during those same years, was far less motivated to revisit a world in which I perceived I had made scant impact.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was not a total outcast among the 200 in attendance and that my experiences in the classroom both as a student and teacher would somehow become center stage.

Time does not dull all memories

It was at breakfast on the Sunday after the final gathering and a group of six alums were gathered around a large round table. Richard, now a dentist in Lake Tahoe, posed an interesting question to the assembled group: “Which of your teachers was the most influential in your life?” Without hesitation I answered “My Junior English teacher John Harocopus,” then added, “he was my model in my career especially in terms of classroom management. He was young and not physically imposing but he was passionate about his subject and ran a wonderfully disciplined and demanding class.” I went on to explain that I later adapted many of his methods in my own classroom.

My friend, who in addition to his athletic talents was highly successful academically, quickly joined the conversation. “For me it was Col. Brose. He brought history alive for me and to this day he gave me a strong interest in the subject. He was a great teacher who brought the curriculum alive for everyone in the class.” A former star basketball player seated across the table nodded in agreement with this choice.

And so it went for fifteen minutes, six men all hovering around the age of 68 and five decades removed from public education vividly discussing the profound influence wielded by educators they had encountered when John Kennedy was President. In the midst of the conversation my wife, a retired Biology teacher, leaned over to me and whispered, “More than a little scary what a difference teachers can make. Every person in education should have to listen to something like this.” The proof of this assertion was clearly on display.

And on the flip side

During the course of the reunion not all of the memories were so positive. At the second reception a man approached me and introduced himself by saying, “I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Steve Alsop. We were in eleventh-grade U.S. History together.” Surprisingly once he had given me his name I did, indeed, remember him. “When I saw your name on the list of attendees,” he continued, “I couldn’t wait to ask you if you remembered the time you were asked the question about the British and Colonists in the Revolutionary War.”

My blank look indicated a total lack of recall of an event that occurred in 1962. “I’m afraid I don’t,” I said somewhat sheepishly.

A smile crossed his face. It was apparent that this incident was still an amazingly fresh memory. “So that crazy teacher of ours says to the class, ‘Given all of the circumstances entering into the war, which side had the advantage, the British or the Colonists?’” The grin widened. “Well, everyone was terrified that she would call on them and then she looked at you and said, ‘Stu Singer, what do you think?’ I’ll never forget how you gave a wonderful answer explaining all of the numerous factors favoring the British. It was a compelling argument, an extremely powerful argument. So after you had finished and most of the class was nodding in agreement she says, ‘Now that was very logical, but it just wasn’t the answer I was looking for.’ Steve shook his head and put his hand on my shoulder. “At that point you just looked back at me a few rows away and rolled your eyes. I will never forget that moment.”

While I had no such recollection the implication was clear—this hypocritical and bizarre response by a teacher had left a permanent and obviously negative impression on this individual. The question that went through my mind was “how many other people at this reunion have similar stories?”

During the course of the three days other teachers, some good others not so much, were placed under a similar half-century old microscope. The take-home message for this retired educator was clear. Fifty or more years after the classroom instruction had been completed the palpable impact on many of the students, positive and negative, remained.

It is as important lesson for educators in 2014 as it was in 1964.

Stop Patching Education!

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle and a forty-year veteran math teacher.

This is the first in a series of rants from a frustrated educational writer.

At the intersection of politics and education the refrain is always the same.

In a recent flurry of solutions for the plight of education in America the potential answers are basically a summary of the usual suspects. The proposals include increasing school choice, incorporating more charter schools, allowing students to “backpack” their federal funding and, of course, more accountability through testing.

The problem with these cures and others of a similar ilk is that they do not address the fundamental problem—creating an educational environment which will produce more appropriate learning and graduates prepared for succeeding in the world of 2020.

The numbers tell the story

The biggest problem in education is waste. This form of mismanagement is not, however, related to the poor utilization of funding. Rather it is the incredible mismanagement of educational time. Foremost among these misguided actions is the totally outdated agrarian calendar that is at the center of virtually every school system in the country.

When looked at from a mathematical viewpoint the manner in which children in the United States attend school is appalling. The vast majority of academic calendars include 180 or so days of instruction spread over a 43-week period. Even a relatively small adjustment to that approach could create significant changes in potential learning. If that number were increased by a very modest 20 days (11%), the additional learning time would be remarkable. Twenty days over eleven years translates into (more…)

Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road?


By Malbert Smith and Mel Riddile



A friend recently sent us a web link with the title “40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World”. For purposes of this blog, we highlight four maps for you to reflect on and to think about what it reveals about our priorities and policies.

The first map is designed to get you thinking about the three maps that follow. The map reveals that all but a few countries drive on the “right side” of the road.


As you look at the three maps that follow ask yourself, are we driving on the right side of the road on some key issues? Keep in mind that uniqueness is not necessarily a problem. The U.S. is unique in many ways—some positive and some negative. Another way of thinking about it is to ask, is the U.S. leading, following, or are we simply dragging our feet?

The second map indicates that the highest paid public employee in the vast majority of our states is a not the governor, a famous brain surgeon, or a college president, but a college coach! Below is the complete map with a link to a fascinating article on this topic.

Map by

As anyone who knows us will attest, both of us are huge sports fans and, in fact, one of us was a Division 1 student-athlete. While our elected officials often claim that education is our highest priority, this first map may lead an objective observer to conclude that athletics is our highest priority as a country.

The next map we have selected indicates the number of countries in the world like the USA that have elected not to adopt the metric system.

Map via Wikimedia Commons

If we are serious about competing in a globally connected world perhaps it’s time to revisit whether it’s finally time to go metric. For a brief description of the history of adopting the metric system in our country, see Smith, M. (2012) Transitioning from Adoption to Implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Like the metric map, the maternal leave map below shows that the rest of the world has taken a very different position. In terms of the metric system and maternal leave, the countries that have adopted the same position are not the countries that are leading the world in education.

Map by The New York Times

The world has and is changing. On that we can agree. Yet, we continue to make decisions that indicate we are taking the path of least resistance by clinging to what we know—our past. Education is about preparing students to live in their world, not the world we grew up in.

We have to eliminate the That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It (TTWWADI) mindset. This does not mean thinking out of the box. We may need to create a new box.

Finally, behaving in a different way for the sake of being different can be just as problematic as refusing to change. We need to focus our energies on solutions not on problems.



For a complete list of the 40 maps, please see

An Homage to Today’s Educators

By Stuart L. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

I look at my retirement with a blend of joy and sorrow.

I love that the pension provided by my forty years of service allows me to pursue many of my passions. I can now commit hours creating meals, write a book about my experiences as a teacher, spend quality time with family all while bloviating about education on a regular basis in this space. But what saddens me is the knowledge that after leaving the classroom a mere five years ago, in all honesty I would not want to return to the profession that defined and enriched my life.

So many problems; so few solutions

I am in awe of the individuals who occupy the classrooms and administrative wings of schools in 2013. The obstacles that are constantly being placed into their paths are beyond daunting. And yet as another academic year begins, the heroic efforts commence anew. The challenges being faced by today’s educators are diverse. Here is a list (in no particular order) of the reasons I am now content to watch from the sidelines.

A lethal mix of politics and policy

An educational leader I greatly respect told me of a meeting he attended to design educational policy. “There were twenty of us in the room and I was the only person who had ever stood in front of a classroom or led a school. It was amazing to watch an important conversation in which so little hands-on experience was available.” Such situations are neither unique nor isolated. One former national teacher-of-the-year lamented his lack of input during a similar gathering comparing his presence to a piece of the furniture in the room.

The classic example of unrealistic political goals being attached to educational policy was The No Child Left Behind provision requiring a pass rate of 100% by 2014. Only a misguided idealist with (more…)

The Wrong Basic Instincts

By Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader, and author of The Algebra Miracle.

It was a lesson learned on the frontlines of education.

As the 2013-14 school year unfolds across the country that experience compels a retired teacher to repeat the sentiments of Mel Riddile: school leaders will see significant improvement in academic achievement if they trade absolute control for cooperation. The validity of that philosophy delineated by both success and failure can be found at a school that was an aberration in an extraordinarily affluent district.

The fundamentals

The socio-economic demographics of the student body were astounding. The percent of students receiving a free or reduced price lunch was more than the ten wealthiest schools combined.  The mobility, ELL and absentee rates were equally disproportionate. Local street gangs exerted a strong influence within the building. Virtually every measure of academic success matched those negative statistics. Into this difficult situation a new principal made a stunning decision—relinquishing control in the hope that it could translate into improved educational achievement.

The story of this school is chronicled in my book “The Algebra Miracle”. The unwritten chapters of the years that have followed those related in the original story are a powerful reminder of the danger of creating (more…)