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The Q&A: Michael Marder

In this week's Q&A, we interview Michael Marder of the UT-Austin's physics department and UTeach Science Program.

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With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Michael Marder is a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the executive director of the UTeach Science Program, which helps prepare secondary math and science teachers. He has advocated for preserving rigor in mathematics programs at the secondary school level as part of college readiness efforts. The discussion has gained urgency in the aftermath of House Bill 5, which changed high school graduation requirements to include more pathways to a diploma.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: You bring something of a unique background to public education advocacy. What is your background, and why have you chosen to speak out on college readiness?

Michael Marder: I am a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin. But I also come from a family in which all the members of my family benefited from public education tremendously. My father was an immigrant to the country at an early age, and without public schools, I don’t think either he or I would be where we are today. So as I was coming up through the education system, I was aware of the differences it made in my life, and I hope to have a chance eventually in order to give such differences to other people. Working with UTeach, which I’ve done for the past 17 years at UT-Austin, has given me that chance.

Trib+Edu: Could you sketch out for me the college readiness challenge in Texas? How does mathematics play into this?

Marder: Texas, like all states in the United States, sees great differences between both the opportunities and the outcomes that are faced by kids in different communities. If you look at children in schools where poverty is very concentrated, the fractions on who finishes high school ready for college is much smaller than the fraction at schools where the community is very prosperous. And, therefore, depending on where students grow up, the chance that they’ll be ready to enter a college prepared for success is very different depending on their background. And when I say college, it means not only institutions like the University of Texas at Austin where I work but community colleges and other institutions that are devoted to preparing students for careers.

Mathematics is a central subject in college readiness. It can often present the difference to a student between being able to go on with education and not being able to do it. And so any discussion of high school education, I think the mathematics level has to come to the fore.

Trib+Edu: Moving on to a question here about the new HB 5 regime: Can the state meet these challenges on readiness under HB 5?

Marder: HB 5 provides a lot of freedom. The freedom includes the freedom to students to tailor an educational program and the freedom to schools and districts to offer varied educational programs. Some of that freedom, I think, is welcomed by everybody. The opportunity for communities to choose pathways that support their students and the ability of students to tailor their programs to their interests are all things that I think everybody legitimately wants for themselves.

But there is a flipside, and it’s something that worries me a lot. The flipside is that some subjects which are of enormous value are very difficult to teach, are difficult to learn and their significance is hard to appreciate until years after the time when students are supposed to take them. This is particularly true of algebra II, which became one of the central points of discussion in the wake of HB 5. There was one position, which was that this class is something that many people will not actually need in practice, either later in their education or in their daily work environment. And the other position was that you wouldn’t be able to have a whole variety of opportunities if you didn’t master that level of mathematics. I looked at the data, particularly about going to community college, and decided that the effects of not mastering mathematics at the level of algebra II would present very severe problems to students in Texas. And so in this particular case, I think the freedom, which in and of itself is desirable, becomes a very severe problem.

If students and families exercise freedom early on to shut off later opportunities, then they will have a very difficult time ever changing that for themselves. And I think it’s at least incumbent on those of us who look out over the educational system to speak out and try to inform people as much as possible of what these changes and opportunities might mean.

Trib+Edu: Is the structure under HB 5 flexible enough to be able to do that balancing act of freedom while maintaining rigor? Or does HB 5 need to be changed?

Marder: HB 5 permits many different things. It provides the freedom to provide education to almost every desired level of rigor. But the question is what are families, students and schools going to do with the freedom? Are they going to use it in order to provide a rigorous education that lets people pursue their life goals? Or are they going to use it to back away from teaching courses that are hard to staff and hard to learn, no matter what the consequences for the students may be? I don’t think we know with certainty how this is going to go. But the history of education in Texas and the country indicates that when there hasn’t been strong pressure to staff and take hard courses, people have avoided it and then the consequences of that fall differentially on people from different economic backgrounds to a very great degree. That bothers me.

Trib+Edu: On college readiness in Texas education, are we at a crisis point?

Marder: I think using the word “crisis” might be too extreme. There are many jobs right now in Texas that are opening up associated with, for example, the oil boom in the Eagle Ford shale for which, at this moment, very strong STEM skills may not be essential. This is, I think, not a very good foundation for the long-term future of the state. The trucking jobs and other jobs of that sort will last for some time and then probably go.

I still think the state has enormous promise, wonderful educational institutions, has done a tremendous amount of hard work in recent years, as is shown by Texas’ standing in numerous national exams. And so I hope we will not reach the point of crisis. I hope that we’ll just continue to fully build on what’s been accomplished, take advantage of some of the great opportunities that are coming from new technologies like hydraulic fracturing and move everything forward.

Trib+Edu: You mentioned a little bit of the consequences, but if you could maybe just expand a little bit on the long-term economic consequences for the state, the consequences of teaching mathematics and maintaining rigor. To what extent is this crucial to the continued economic success of Texas?

Marder: When communities of kids don’t master mathematics at the level of algebra II, then it becomes difficult for them to pursue education at the level of long-term certificates, associate's degrees, bachelor’s degrees and anything above. That means that their job prospects are limited to relatively low-wage jobs. If that type of workforce becomes concentrated in certain parts of the state or in certain communities, I think it will have negative consequences. It certainly seems to me to violate some basic sense of fairness that citizens from all different parts of the state and all groups deserve equal opportunity because not having mathematics removes opportunity. Whether it really means that the state as a whole suffers economically, I’m not as well positioned to say. That’s a statement that would come from people with somewhat different specialties than mine.

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