Growing the Science Branch of STEM

If the subject is education or workforce development, one of the more popular acronyms is STEM. But the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not treated equally, according to a new report.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the report was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (although other nonprofit research entities were also involved). And although elevating science is one of the lead concepts, there are a number of suggestions for policymakers in the effort to improve all STEM disciplines.

A few of the highlights:

“A growing number of jobs — not just those in professional science — require knowledge of STEM fields,” said Adam Gamoran, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor of sociology and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  “The goal isn’t only to have a capable and competitive work force.  We need to help all students become scientifically literate because citizens are increasingly facing decisions related to science and technology — whether it’s understanding a medical diagnosis or weighing competing claims about the environment.” 

The report identifies key elements of high-quality STEM education to which policymakers could target improvements:

  • A coherent set of standards and curriculum. States and districts should have rigorous K-12 STEM standards and curricula that are focused on the most important topics in each discipline and presented as a sequence of content and practices that build knowledge over time.

  • Teachers with high capacity to teach in their discipline. Good teachers need to know both STEM content and how to teach it; many teachers are currently underprepared to teach STEM-related courses.

  • A supportive system of assessment and accountability. Current assessments limit educators’ ability to teach in ways that promote learning the content and understanding the practices of science and mathematics.

  • Adequate instructional time. The average amount of time spent on science instruction in elementary classrooms has decreased in recent years even as the time on mathematics instruction has increased. This is likely due to the focus on math and English language arts in the No Child Left Behind Act. 

The report suggests that one way to elevate science to the same level of importance as mathematics and reading is to assess science subjects as frequently as is done for reading and math, using an assessment system that supports learning and understanding.  However, such a system is not yet available for science subjects, the report notes. States and national organizations need to develop assessments that are aligned with the next generation of science standards — which will be based on a framework to be released soon by the Research Council — and that emphasize science practices rather than mere factual recall.  

National and state policymakers also should invest in helping educators in STEM fields teach more effectively, said the committee. For example, teachers should be able to pursue professional development through peer collaboration and professional learning communities, among other approaches. Schools and school districts should devote adequate instructional time and resources to science in grades K-5 to lay a foundation for further study, the report notes, as research suggests that interest in science careers may develop in the elementary school years.  

McRobbie: Moving Forward Requires Asking Tough Questions

We end higher education week today with posts from Indiana University President Michael McRobbie.

  • What is the No. 1 change you would like to see in Indiana’s higher education system that would help serve students better?

I believe that strengthening the academic core of our universities should be our highest priority, particularly in these challenging economic times. This means we must begin asking ourselves difficult questions. Are we teaching in ways that are meaningful for today’s students, using technologies to educate students more effectively, assuring that important learning goals and outcomes are met, and identifying knowledge and skills that students will need to make valuable contributions in their communities? Asking these kinds of questions is critical in an economy where knowledge is expanding at an exponential rate, where people are changing jobs many times in their lives, and many of the most important jobs and careers are new ones.

We cannot wait for others to ask and answer these questions. Indeed, we must accept this challenge ourselves, and as a matter of urgency. That is why at IU we are establishing a New Academic Directions Committee that will examine the overall structure of our academic units and, hence, ensure that we are offering the best kinds of educational opportunities for students and responding quickly to major educational trends happening around the globe. In addition, each of our campuses will establish a New Directions in Learning Committee, including top administrators, faculty members, and outstanding students, to help us renew our commitment to the quality—and currency—of the education we provide.

Córdova: Financial Aid, Lack of Direction Challenge Today’s Students

Today on higher education week on our blog, we feature guest posts from Purdue University President France Córdova. She answers:

  • What is the No. 1 change you would like to see in Indiana’s higher education system that would help serve students better?

Indiana is blessed with a rich array of opportunities in higher education. Students can attend community or regional colleges near their home, outstanding private four-year institutions, or world-class public research universities. The choice depends on their career plans, financial means, academic preparation and personal preference.

In spite of the choices, I’m hearing some common challenges that prospective students face when it comes to higher education: (1) the admissions and financial aid processes can be daunting, especially for those who are the first in their families to attend college; (2) students often do not know which college or university, or course of study, can best help them reach their educational and career goals; and (3) for a variety of reasons many students do not pursue their degree aggressively and fail to stay in college to degree completion.

At Purdue, we’re helping to answer these challenges in several ways:

  • We are employing more transparent online financial aid tools for students and their families. Also, we have launched a campaign to raise more scholarship funds for students who have demonstrable need for financial assistance, as well as for those who apply themselves in the classroom and show leadership potential.
  • To help students with college preparation and course selection, we are investigating the benefits of a campus-wide core curriculum, and we are working to simplify the transfer of courses among institutions, including from Ivy Tech to Purdue. Our regional campuses are looking at increased efficiencies in common credit transfer processes and shared resources, including a shared core curriculum to ease transfer among the campuses. Purdue’s campuses are working together to help power economic development across northern Indiana and everyone in the area will benefit.
  • Once a student enrolls with us, we work hard to help that student succeed. We have a large number of novel retention practices at our campuses, making use of experiential learning, information technology and social media.

We also encourage our students to be entrepreneurial through certification programs and through internships in our technology parks, Indiana companies and nonprofits; these learning experiences help the state keep more graduating students. 

Lack of History Education Could Plague Future Generations

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently posted a very worthwhile editorial from Barbara Davidson,  president of StandardsWork, Inc.

In the editorial, Davidson takes the collective American educational system to task for what she feels is an alarming disregard for history:

Every week, it seems, another study highlights how little knowledge our young people possess about history, civics and geography. Earlier this year, Common Core found that half of the 17 year olds polled didn’t know whom Senator McCarthy investigated or what the Renaissance was, while the Bradley Foundation told us that most eighth graders couldn’t explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. The list goes on. In 2006, National Geographic revealed that nearly two-thirds of 18-24 year olds could not identify Iraq on a map of Asia, and fully 88 percent could not find Afghanistan — apparently refuting Ambrose Bierce’s suggestion that "War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography." 

As someone approaching 30, I can honestly say that, despite the fact that I had some incredible teachers at my high school and occasionally in college (both public schools), my knowledge of history was painfully lacking. And I think it was more an indictment of the curriculum, rather than the actual educators. What’s more, after college, I soon realized what I thought I had learned in my political science classes in college had been presented with more than a little bias. Most of what I know of history has been read from books in the last eight years or so, and I’m still wanting for information — if my answers to "Jeopardy" questions are any indication. (Apparently, Noam Chomsky was NOT Cliff Clavin’s best friend on "Cheers.")

Anyway, it’s nice to see David McCullough was also referenced in this editorial:

During Congressional testimony in 2006, historian David McCullough described how human beings have a natural interest in history and find it to be a source of pleasure. He went on to say that "to deny our children that pleasure is to deny them a means of extending and enlarging the experience of being alive."

McCullough’s book, "John Adams," was recently made into a highly-acclaimed miniseries by HBO (which I thoroughly enjoyed).

So kudos to Davidson for her eye-opening piece on the lack of social studies in American schools.

And let us not forget the past, remembering the words of George Santayana: "A country without a memory is a country of madmen."

Brilliant words from the man who once graced us with such efforts as "Oye Como Va" and "Black Magic Woman."

Coaches Instead of Teachers?

The Education Gadfly, a weekly offering from the Fordham Institute, provides some of the most interesting perspectives on education issues. A current commentary by Michael Petrilli is titled: What to do about mediocre teachers?

The proposal to recruit teachers from the top third of their college classes simply isn’t practical, Petrilli writes. He does offer two alternatives (bear with the four-paragraph length; the thoughts are intriguing):

"I don’t have any surefire answers, but I see two possible solutions. First, provide tools to make these teachers more effective. And second: replace these teachers with something else entirely.

What tools might make a difference? More than anything, mediocre teachers need a solid curriculum. This is hardly a revolutionary idea, and yet it’s striking how little attention curricular frameworks, standards, scopes-and-sequences and materials receive. How can we expect so-so teachers — especially rookies — to make their instruction engaging if we ask each one to invent the instructional wheel themselves?

Beyond giving teachers better tools, the other option is to replace teachers entirely. This isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. The healthcare system figured out long ago that it didn’t need MD’s doing every annual physical or treating every patient with the flu. It developed "nurse practitioners" and "physicians’ assistants" — individuals with plenty of training to provide basic care at a much lower salary. We should consider that model, too.

Think about poor, remote rural communities. While they struggle to attract top-notch teachers to their schools, they are full of caring adults who love kids and need jobs. But lots of these adults don’t have college degrees. Maybe that’s not a problem. What if every classroom had a "coach," instead of a "teacher," a person charged with keeping students on task, looking after their social and emotional needs, and providing instruction in hands-on subjects like art, music, and gym? But core academics get provided via the Internet."

Read the full Petrilli argument.

Gingrich Shares Education Ideas: “Education System is Dead”

"Our education system is dead. It’s propped up by unions, bureaucracy and schools of education."

That’s the take of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who will be the keynote speaker at the Indiana Chamber’s 19th Annual Awards Dinner on November 6.

At a speech before local and state elected officials earlier this year, Gingrich also offered:

  • An automatic college scholarship for each year that a student graduates early from high school
  • Dual credit programs. In Selma, Alabama, 32 of 65 high school graduates also received associate degrees along with their high school diplomas. Gingrich: "That is the beginning of the future."
  • Abolish state curriculums and get rid of departments of education
  • All states should have an outside review panel look at the costs of higher education
  • The current system will "never fix the pile of federal bureaucracy on top of state bureaucracy on top of regional bureacracy on top of local bureaucracy."

Gingrich is coming to town. You don’t want to miss him.