Last evening, the Superintendent of Montgomery County Schools (MCPS), Joshua Starr ignited a minor firestorm with a tweet asserting “Ask Siri what’s 3 divided by 4; compare the answers 2 the answer u get w/ a calculator. if you can google it, why teach it.” The Superintendent clarified his comment by tweeting “You’re 100% right. we must teach math facts & operations. I was trying to make broader point about application vs memorization,” and some rushed to reinterpret his original tweet.

The cliché tweeted by the Superintendent, “if you can google it, why teach it,” on the face of it, conveys a lack of understanding of the vast repertoire of knowledge the internet universe has become. Indeed, if the cliché were true, the teaching profession might as well pack its bags. If teaching math was just limited to disseminating math “facts and operations,” one could perhaps argue that the ubiquitous internet would suffice. However, teaching math is much, much more than that.

Today, increasingly, the Common Core curriculum is hastily recruited to assert that it is all about teaching “understanding.” Little attention is given to the fact that how a school system implements the Common Core will determine if it serves the advertised purpose.

Creative thinking, the new catch phrase du jour, is used to insist that “students need creative thinking skills in order to apply math skills in varying situations.”

The fact is that these mindsets tend to put the cart before the horse. Successful creative thinking, in any discipline, requires a good grasp of the subject matter, and an enduring understanding thereof. For example, the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, endures for our enjoyment because of the sound engineering principles that underpin its creative design.

However, teaching has often become an exercise of satisfying quotas. For example, MCPS asserts in its Strategic Planning Framework, that its twelfth graders should graduate “Algebra 2 with a grade of C or higher.” The perils of putting such artificial goals are wonderfully apparent in the consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requiring all children meet proficiency levels by 2014. It is one thing to have admirable goals; it is another to then impose deadlines and quotas.

MCPS recently faced the fact that a large swath of students was failing their final exams in math. None of the explanations proffered by the school system were reassuring to the editorial staff of the Washington Post (see here and here for reports on the math debacle). It is crucial that MCPS broaden its view of possible causes, to include, at the very least, the teaching methods, subject matter familiarity of the teachers, and institutional mindset on math. Discussion of the broader view must be transparent, and necessarily include the insights of a larger swath of the community and academics.

Today, teachers are being called upon more often to teach subject matter that was once relegated to the hallowed halls of academia. It is a burden that can only be borne on the shoulders of proven subject matter competence. For that purpose, a degree from a school of education alone just doesn’t suffice.