Change the Equation's blog

Careful! Math Anxiety Can Be Contagious

June 6, 2012

The estimable Llewellyn King has some advice for us math and science activists. "Stop haranguing [children] about math and science," he writes. "Math and science are not the same thing; related, yes, identical, no. Math intimidates a lot of children.... Consequently, many young minds are lost to the glorious world of science because they fear that they must pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Math." There is a grain of truth in what he writes, but it may well get lost amidst all his troubling preconceptions about math.

It's not easy to get past King's tone. He lays it on awfully thick with the "Valley of the Shadow of Math" image. Only someone who doesn't much like the subject could see math as a dark trial that stands between students and their redemption through other subjects like science. Indeed, King remembers being "the very worst math student who ever tried addition." All too many adults portray math as a bitter pill.

His claim later on that our "creative footprint across this world" proves that our nation is doing just fine in math, thank you very much, has worn more than a little thin. Just have a look at the most recent Gathering Storm report from the National Academies to see how quickly that world is catching up to us. Our Googles and Facebooks might not always come to us as easily as the leaves to a tree.

Yet here's the grain of truth: As long as we teach math as something ponderous and

Tags: math

Why Don't We Do More To Celebrate Women and Minorities in Science and Technology?

June 4, 2012

Janaye Ingram had a visceral reaction after seeing a recent TV ad for a big chain store that sells electronics. The ad features a parade of men who have created new technologies or tech businesses.

"Anyone notice a trend? Anyone notice something missing?" she asks. Not one woman. Not one person of color. That prompts another question: "Aren’t there any females or blacks who are technology inventors or is it just that they and their products aren’t well known or widely consumed?"

To be sure, the tech fields have been dominated by white men. Women and people of color are woefully scarce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As the demand for STEM talent grows, it's getting harder to ignore this major imbalance. For the first time last year, more than half of all babies born in the U.S. were born to parents of color. We can hardly rest easy when such a huge share of our population is shut out of careers that will drive the nation's growth and prosperity.

So what to do? For starters, let's acknowledge those women and people of color who are in the vanguard of technological change. Ingram writes that "Our students need to know names like Marc Hannah, Dr. Mae Jemison, Tiffani Bell and Amos Winbush," all African Americans who are part of

Tags: women & girls, minorities

Should We Direct Technology, or Should It Direct Us?

May 31, 2012

It seems we’ve crossed one digital divide only to find another. The old worry was that the tech revolution would pass low-income youth by, because devices and internet access didn’t come cheap. According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, unequal access to technology may be less of a concern than differences in how students use that technology.

The Times notes that we’ve narrowed, if not closed, the technology gap between the haves and the have nots. Yet it points to findings by the Kaiser Family Foundation (among other sources) that low-income youth tend to spend much more time on their devices than their wealthier peers do--and very little time using them for educational purposes.

Why the difference? Experts speculate that low-income parents, who have little experience with technology themselves, are less able to regulate their children's use of technology.

One possible answer is better training for parents and students in how to use technology. The Times reports that the FCC is apparently weighing a proposal to "spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers."

Here's another idea: Let's revive computer science in

Tags: technology

Good News, Bad News, and No News About Education

May 29, 2012

The government's new report on "The Condition of Education" in 2012 contains good news and bad news. More to the point, it reveals critical areas where there is no news, because we lack vital data. Those blind spots seriously hinder our decision making.

Let's start with some good news. Scores in 4th and 8th grade have been steadily rising over the past two decades. In high school, more students have been taking challenging math and science classes. In 2009, 16 percent of high school graduates had taken calculus, up from 7 percent in 1990. In Algebra II, coursetaking rose from 54 to 76 percent. Geometry? Sixty-four to 88 percent. Science shows similar results. In Chemistry, for example, coursetaking in Chemistry rose from 49 to 70 percent over the same time period.

Now for some bad news. Scores in 12th grade math haven't really budged over the past twenty years. It's not entirely clear why. Some argue that high school seniors are much less likely than 4th or 8th graders to take a no-stakes test like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) seriously. Others say that higher course titles can be deceiving. A course that bears the name of Algebra II, for example, might really be a close cousin of Algebra I--or worse. Whatever the reason, the lack of movement in 12th grade scores should worry us, because it suggests that at least some of those 4th and 8th grade gains are evaporating in

For Girls, the Beauty of Math and Science can be more than Skin Deep

May 24, 2012

Will girls get more interested in science if we feminize it, make it more stereotypically "girly"? Not really, say the authors of a new study out of the University of Michigan. In fact, such efforts might even do more harm than good.

Girls often lose interest in math and science when they're in middle school, leading some to speculate that feminizing those subject might help turn things around. The U of M researchers put this idea to the test, showing middle schools successful women displaying traditionally feminine characteristics such as makeup and pink clothes. Girls exposed to such role models reported a decrease of interest in math and science.

Girls were more motivated by images of female scientists dressed in more gender-neutral clothes, wearing glasses or reading. The study's authors speculate that "girls not interested in math and science saw simultaneous success in both domains at least attainable, suggesting that their lack of motivation was related to the perceived unlikelihood of combining femininity and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] success."

In other words, traditionally feminine images carry so much baggage that they erode girls' interest in STEM.

So should we demonize makeup and the color pink? Certainly not, unless we want fuel the very

Tags: math, science, women & girls

Florida: A Troubling Vision of Things to Come?

May 22, 2012

Look no farther than Florida for a vision of what may come. State leaders put tougher 8th-grade writing tests into place and then blanched when the passing rates plunged from 81 to 27 percent. The state then turned tail and lowered the passing bar. We don’t want to repeat that storyline when tougher common math and English tests come on line in two or three years. The political pressures to back down from a high bar will be formidable. It’s not a moment too soon to prepare the public for what to expect.

The common tests states are creating to align with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will by most accounts be more challenging than what most states have in place now. The math tests will require students to show better abstract reasoning ability, make sense of problems, and model with math, for example. If states adopt the common tests, they will have to set common passing scores on those tests amidst major public scrutiny. They can’t very well set a low bar without attracting a lot of notice. When students who did fine on the old tests don't clear the higher bar, states will have some explaining to do, and their resolve to stick with common standards and tests may waver.

Yet they don't have to follow in Florida's footsteps. Just look at Tennessee. When the state raised the bar in 7th grade math in 2009, passing rates on the test dropped from more than 90 percent to under 30 percent in one year. This came as no surprise to Tennessee leaders, who had already mounted an

Tags: STEM & the states

Where the Hot Jobs Are

May 21, 2012

The past three years have been pretty bleak on the employment front. If you have a background in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), however, they might not have been quite that bad.

The chart below tells the story of how people with STEM skills faced very different prospects from most other people in the job market. Just glance over the chart--Don't read it in detail. Wherever you see warm colors, job postings outnumbered unemployed people. Where you see cool colors, unemployed people outnumbered job postings. The overwhelmingly warm columns to the left show the STEM occupations. The overwhelmingly cool colors to the right show other occupational areas: Finance, management, office administration, and all occupations taken together. What a dramatic difference.

In every state, unemployed people with STEM backgrounds fared better than those in other areas. All those business leaders might not just be crying wolf when they claim that they can't fill STEM positions even in times of high unemployment.

To get a closer look at the at the state-by-state information below, have a look at our recent report, STEM Help Wanted.

Table of Job Prospects for STEM and non-STEM employees

Tags: jobs & workforce

A Big Boost for Common Math Standards

May 18, 2012

How do we boost our students’ performance in math? Do what the top-performing countries do: Adopt and then teach to truly first rate standards for academic content. That’s the conclusion of a new study that should buoy the spirits of people who champion the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS) here in the US.

The study, by William Schmidt of Michigan State University, offers several powerful findings. Among them:

  • Common Core State Standards are very similar to academic content standards in countries where students beat the pants off ours in math. (Schmidt calls these “A+ standards.) He found a 90 percent overlap in content. He also found that CCSS and those other countries presented math topics in a similar order.
  • Most current state standards in the US are very different from standards in the superstar countries. He found that the overlap for states ranged from 62 to 83 percent.
  • Most current state standards present more content than the A+ standards do. As such, they’re “a mile wide and an inch deep,” stressing quantity over quality of learning.
  • Standards like CCSS can raise student performance. States with standards that most closely resemble CCSS performed better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). (Schmidt looked at 8th grade math.) Yes, this is just a correlation, but it challenges the claim of Common Core opponents that states with strong standards don’t get any bang for their
Tags: Common Core, standards, math

Do All Kids Have Access to Hands-On Science?

May 16, 2012

New research suggests that students who have access to hands-on science activities may learn much more than their peers do. That raises a critical question: Do all students have ready access to very good hands-on learning opportunities? A quick review of national data suggests that low-income students in particular do not.

The most recent evidence on the impact of hands-on science comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science (NAEP). In 2011, students who engaged in hands-on science activities at least once or twice a week in school scored 14 points higher on NAEP than students who never or hardly ever did. That amounts to roughly a grade level of learning--or more.

Skeptics charge that these NAEP findings might have more to do with correlation than causation. They speculate that wealthy students, who happen to score higher on NAEP, are most likely do more hands-on activities. That doesn't mean that the hands-on activities actually caused their higher scores.

This is an important caution, but a closer look at NAEP data doesn't bear it out. When we break the findings down by student eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch programs (FRPL--a measure of low income), we find that eligibility doesn't have a very big impact on student access to hands-on science activities in school.* Score one for hands-on.

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Bigger differences emerge, however, when we look at the kinds of resources schools have to support hands-on learning. Take, for example, the supplies schools provide for science labs. Only 32 percent of low-income students have teachers who report having "a lot" of the "supplies or equipment" they need for

Raising Our Game in Science: A Big Step for the Next Generation

May 14, 2012

A draft of new K-12 common science standards is out and ready for review. These standards follow on the heels of "Common Core" math and English language arts standards that 46 states have already adopted. Like the Common Core standards, these "Next Generation Science Standards" are emerging from a collaboration among states. If you want to offer input into the draft science standards, you have until June 1 to do so. Public input is a critical part of this process.

The draft became public on Friday, so few people have had a lot of time to dig in. Still, many have high hopes that the new standards could become game-changers for science education in this country. A recent review of current state science standards by the Fordham Institute found that most were "mediocre to awful," to quote Kathleen Porter-McGee, who oversaw the review. (Erik Robelen at Education Week includes this quotation in his terrific piece on the draft standards.)

The new standards aim to improve matters by focusing on fewer topics in greater depth. Critics of science education in the US claim that most science standards are "a mile wide and an inch deep" and stress breadth over understanding. The new standards also aim to help students

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