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Q & A with Uri Treisman

Q & A with Uri Treisman
Uri TreismanUri Treisman is a professor of mathematics and the executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center.

Since Treisman founded the center in the 1980s, it has become a national leader in education policy and research. We sat down with Treisman, who was named a MacArthur Fellow (sometimes known as the MacArthur “genius” grant) in 1992, to talk about the state of education in America, the role of the Dana Center, and the politics of the education wars.

Focus on Science: How does the Dana Center fit into, or approach, the education wars? Which side are you on?

Treisman: Debate is healthy. And what could be more important than arguing about education, which is so central to our country’s future? The challenge, one central to the Dana Center’s work, is to keep the largest possible number of people engaged in the improvement of education. You want to keep people committed to public education and vigorously arguing for their points of view, and we need to have nonpartisan groups—like the Dana Center—that have the capacity to respectfully moderate these discussions and move the debate forward in ways that lead to improvements in the education of all our children. So in brief, we’re on everybody’s side.

How has your approach, and the Dana Center’s approach, changed since you started doing this 35 years ago?

It’s not so much that the issues are different, but that research has advanced significantly in the 20 years since the Dana Center’s creation. We’re now using recent advances in motivation theory and developmental psychology to examine the sources of disengagement and demoralization in students, and to reconnect them to schooling and to high achievement. We’re using advances in the learning sciences to develop rich supports for mathematical instruction. And we’re using recent advances in economic theory to inform state policy on such issues as teacher compensation and school funding.

What do you say to people who are fatalistic about public education in this country, who say that nothing’s getting better?

As recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics and from international studies show, American education is improving rapidly. Today’s students know far more than students did 20 years ago. And indeed—a fact that we in Texas should be proud of—our state is a national leader in mathematics performance. Moreover, African American, Hispanic, and low-income children have been the biggest beneficiaries of Texas educational reform.

The evidence standards are much higher than they’ve ever been for educational work, and the urgency created by accountability systems is improving school performance. Even though people may not like current federal education policies (and I have a lot of concerns about them) they’ve certainly caused educators to pay far more attention to everybody’s children—and not just those students who have traditionally performed well in school.

The question is not whether we can learn enough; the question is whether the public will be there to really raise the standards for high school education. Everyone is against illiteracy and innumeracy, but when you start talking about access to high-profile, advanced courses, when you start seeing the changing complexion of AP courses, that’s when you get competing interests. People start raising questions. Should all kids really take these classes? Is my kid still going to get into UT Austin? It really tests the democratic basis of our society. What do we mean by opportunity for all?
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Sunday, 19 November 2017

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