“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” wrote H.L. Mencken.

Gary Marvin Davison offers a clear and simple causal argument for declining mathematics scores in “Minnesota’s low math scores are no accident” (Oct. 17): “The problem students have in succeeding in mathematics is that they are taught by too many incompetent teachers produced in our departments, colleges and schools of education.”

And it is wrong. Davison puts forth a post hoc fallacy, mistakenly claiming causality without considering the many complex causes of declining test scores.

I am a retired language arts educator who spent 39 years teaching — 34 in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and the last five as an “objectionable” and “least regarded” education professor at St. Cloud State University. In those 39 years, I witnessed, and indeed at times was part of, simple and clear initiatives to improve student learning and outcomes. My experiences taught me that there is no simple solution to any educational challenge.

Additionally, my decades of interactions with and observations of my mathematics colleagues inspired me to strive for excellence in my own teaching. I routinely observed them tutoring their students before and after school, well before the duty day began and after it ended. They successfully adapted instruction to their students’ different skill levels, often within the same classroom. And, most important, they invariably strived to help all their students succeed. They were not always successful.

But it was not because they were incompetent, nor do I believe it was because of inadequate training by their education professors. They were and are professional educators of the highest order.

Here are some factors that merit consideration for declining scores. Standardized tests of questionable reliability and validity. Growing numbers of students for whom English is a second language. Students who are homeless, yet somehow find their way to school almost every day. Chemical addiction. Lack of proper nutrition, lack of needed sleep, insufficient or nonexistent health care and dental care. (Try concentrating when you have tooth pain.) A myriad cultural and social distractions. The list could go on and on.

Finally, I wish to thank all the mathematics teachers who tirelessly devote their efforts and tailor their curricular expertise for their students. You are convenient targets of fallacious reasoning by the likes of Davison. On Monday, start the week with your typical optimism for your students and your unwavering dedication to your profession.


Bradley Johnson, of Champlin, is a retired educator.