My Father’s Stories:
Education – Good is Not Great

My father, Phil Haas, rose to a top position at a research university, and he saw first-hand that great teachers create passion in their students.  Igniting this passion is arguably the first item on the agenda of our education system, and it sometimes seems to have fallen to the bottom of the list.

Dad often referred to a study completed by a former president of Dartmouth College.  It compared Calculus II final exam grades for students taught by graduate assistants, associate professors, and full professors.   I’d expect that students learning from experienced professors would do better, but the results showed no significant difference in averages or distributions by type of teacher. A year later, the president investigated what classes those students had enrolled in. Students of full professors were enrolled in high-level elective math classes at a rate more than double the other groups.  Clearly, the full professors had created passion in more students than the more junior teachers.

Blackboard6My father was a math professor at Purdue University and was also an administrator. The most exciting achievements in his career were his experiences in the classroom.  He was particularly proud of mentoring the daughter of a general in 1991.  She wanted to be a teacher – maybe a math teacher. One day she needed to go home for a family conference with her father.   A few days later the U.S. invaded Iraq. My father mentored her through that difficult emotional time. She called him her father “in loco” and left Purdue with an even greater love for mathematics.   She’s since received her Ph.D. and teaches mathematics at a prestigious university. His role in supporting her achievement was one of my father’s proudest accomplishments.

Are we fostering that kind of pride in educators today? Do we measure our teachers as mentors, as individuals who inspire? Not these days.   We assess teachers on their students’ exam scores, regardless of whether the students are reeling from malnutrition, lack of sleep, divorce, and other turmoil that happens outside school.  As Jim Collins would ask, are we striving to be good rather than great?  In a hyper-competitive global job market, is good really good enough?    My father didn’t think so. Before his death this month, he talked about the decline in true standards for education. “There is nothing more important now for this country,” he said, “than passionate learners.”

My father, who believed that math skills were essential for our workforce, was proud that Purdue offered honors Calculus courses and is now expanding this program he had started — an investment in their students and our nation’s future.