It’s cool when learning applies to life

Last week, Jessica, one of my seniors in AP Macro, sent me an email boldly titled:  “THE BIG SHORT WAS SO GOOD.”

In it, she explained that she had rented The Big Short from Red Box on my suggestion, and she was proud that she was able to make sense of it. The movie explains the financial maneuvering that led to the 2007-08 financial crisis, and although it simplifies things a lot, the financial firms’ behavior is still complex and confusing.

“I was so excited that I actually understood most of it from the stuff we learned in class!!!” she wrote. “Seriously crazy to be able to apply things learned in school to life!!!”

Also, Jessica told me, the movie motivated her to start googling other topics, like “how is our economy doing 2016?” As she read more, she started wondering about Japan’s negative interest rates and what it would mean for the Fed and the U.S. economy — all tough to sort out.

She wanted to stop in and ask me a few questions, which she did a few days later.

It was one of those moments that teachers savor, when a student is suddenly so excited by a subject that the tables turn. No longer was I trying to motivate her to learn, but she was seeking more information for herself, trying to sort out all of the terminology and theory and make sense of economics, finance and the real world.

We talked about the moment in the movie when Mark Baum (played by Steve Carell, based on the real-life Steve Eisman) travels from New York to Florida to find out firsthand whether the booming mortgage-backed securities industry is built on lies.

Baum realizes on that trip that mortgages that look solid on paper are a sham — abandoned houses sitting in undeveloped developments — and decides to “short” the housing market.

That scene had a powerful impact on Jessica because it showed the importance of digging deep and finding truth for yourself. You can’t always believe what you read or what other people tell you, even if they are experts (or bond rating agencies).

It made Jessica wonder what we really know at all — and more specifically, what she knows at this point in her life. She asked me: What if my grades and test scores make it look like I’m educated, but I’m not really?

That’s a scary and profound thought for a graduating high school senior. What if doing everything you were supposed to do in high school turns out not to be enough? What if you get out in the real world and discover your credentials are a sham?

I’m not worried about Jessica. She’s a solid student — and the fact that she’s asking these questions at all reveals a deep knowledge that few attain by 18.

But given that more than half of American high school graduates wish they had been better prepared for college and the workforce, hers is a question worth asking.

We need to be sure not only that the diplomas we hand out signify authentic achievement in our schools, but that what we are teaching in our schools is tied in meaningful ways to what students need to know in the real world. That’s difficult to accomplish, when we are often stuck in rigid patterns of education (like rote memorization) that no longer reflect workforce expectations.

Steve Eisman made millions shorting the housing market because he realized that mortgage-backed securities weren’t worth the paper they were printed on — and he bet against them. Who will profit if we discover the same about our diplomas? Not our students and definitely not our society.

Let’s make sure we ask the tough questions about what education should be and whether we are doing it well — and teach our students to do so as well. And thanks, Jessica, for making my day!