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Good News, Bad News, and No News About Education

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

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

Florida: A Troubling Vision of Things to Come?

Florida: A Troubling Vision of Things to Come?

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

Where the Hot Jobs Are

Where the Hot Jobs Are

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

A Big Boost for Common Math Standards

A Big Boost for Common Math Standards

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

Do All Kids Have Access to Hands-On Science?

Do All Kids Have Access to Hands-On Science?

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.


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

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

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

Science: We're Slow and Steady, but We're Not Winning the Race

Science: We're Slow and Steady, but We're Not Winning the Race

The nation’s 2011 report card in 8th-grade science was released today, and the news is, well, so-so. On the on the one hand, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science went up in 16 states and down in none since 2009. They went up for each ethnic or racial group except Asians and Pacific Islanders, and they went up for low-income students. On the other hand, they remain much lower than they should be, they didn’t go up very much, and yawning achievement gaps still separate Black, Hispanic and American Indian students from white students.

In contrast to what you might hear, our students are actually doing better in science than they probably ever have. The real story here is that they are not improving fast enough to meet the growing demand for knowledge and skills, and much of the rest of the world is passing us by.

Here’s a brief rundown of major results:

  • The “average scale score” for all students crept up from 150 to 152 out of a 300-point scale. To put that into greater context, the cutoff for “Basic” performance on NAEP is 141, and the cutoff for “Proficient” performance is 170.
  • Thirty-two percent of all students were “Proficient” in science, and two percent reached the “Advanced” level. In every state, fewer than half of students were Proficient. The states that came closest were Massachusetts, Montana, and North Dakota.

Students of color made the largest gains, narrowing achievement gaps slightly.

  • Black students gained three points, moving from 126 to 129.
  • American Indian/Alaska native students gained four points, moving from 137 to 141.
  • Hispanic students gained the most, an impressive five

Don't Forget to Honor Your Favorite Teachers!

Don't Forget to Honor Your Favorite Teachers!

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day. To mark the occasion, Several change the Equation staff members are honoring math and science teachers who changed their lives.

CTEq’s CEO Linda Rosen remembers Miss Schulman, her seventh grade math teacher at Sligo Junior High in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She can still feel her “sense of wonderment at learning the binary system and other number bases, which both challenged and illuminated everything I thought I knew about numbers.”

Claus von Zastrow, COO & director of research, recalls Mr. Bedor, his high school physics teacher at Seaholm High School in Birmingham Michigan. Mr. Bedor’s introduction to the theory of relativity made his students question everything they thought they understood about the world around them. “He was a quiet and gentlemanly presence in the classroom, but he made the earth shake with powerful ideas.”

Celia Alicata, Director of Programming, also points to a physics teacher, Mrs. Cloud, at the Gilbert School in Winsted, Connecticut. Mrs. Cloud used a trip to the amusement park to drive home lessons about kinetic energy, free fall, centripetal force and other important concepts. “Above all, Mrs. Cloud changed the way I interpreted the world by demonstrating the interconnectedness of science to everyday life.”

Rob Richardson, Director of Member Relations, remembers Mr. Daentle, his 10th grade math teacher at the Pomfret School in Pomfret, Connecticut. Mr. Daentle brought his students outside to measure distances using angles, and he used math to demonstrate how much stronger than humans animals could be. “Small as he was, he could rivet you with a glance that said he wouldn’t take ‘I don’t know’ for an answer.  He made you dig deep into what you did know to reach true understanding.”

CTEq thanks all the teachers who educate and inspire our future citizens and innovators.

Do you have any teachers you would like to honor?

100 US Schools Compare Themselves to Top Performing Nations

100 US Schools Compare Themselves to Top Performing Nations

We’ve often noted an odd dynamic in U.S. education. Parents have bought into the argument that U.S. students are lagging behind their peers in other countries, but the vast majority believe that’s a problem with other people’s children. We’ve speculated that this dynamic has something to do with two major sources of information they get about student performance: state tests of their own children’s performance, which often set the bar fairly low, and more rigorous international tests of student performance, which set the bar much higher but test only a sample of students and report their results anonymously. How else to explain the pervasive “I’m Ok, you’re not” phenomenon?

Now parents in some schools may be about to get something closer to the unvarnished truth about how their children are doing. One hundred U.S. schools will take part this year in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of how 15 year olds from some 60 countries are doing in reading, math and science. The PISA test, whose results come out every few years, fuels many headlines about the our middling to mediocre standing in math and science. In 2009, we ranked significantly behind 12 industrialized nations in science and 17 in math. Students in only 9 industrialized nations scored lower in science, and students in only four scored lower in math.

Schools that participate in PISA will be able to see how they stack up against other nations. Individual students might not get their results, but participating schools can get a much better sense of how well their students are prepared to compete in a global marketplace for skills. The news for some might

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