STEM Beats - February 2012

How's This for a Return on Investment? The Advanced Placement Training & Incentive Program

February 28, 2012

How's this for return on an investment? For about $450 per student, a program to boost participation and success in AP courses pays a return at least 10 times as high.

How's this for a crying shame? There are many schools that would like to adopt the program but lack the funds to do so.

Change the Equation member companies have done their part to change that. In late 2010 and 2011, they brought the program, the Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program (APTIP), to thousands of students across the country. APTIP combines support for students, training for staff, and cash incentives for both with a host of other measures to get more students to take more AP classes and pass more AP tests. The program has had dramatic results for low-income students and students of color, who are much less likely than their peers to take and pass AP tests.

A rigorous study just released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) finds that students who took part in APTIP "students took and passed more AP course and exams, and enrolled in college in greater numbers. Most of this increase occurred at four-year colleges and private universities. Affected students were also more likely to persist in college, to earn more college credits, and slightly more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. In addition, affected students were more likely to be employed and earned higher wages."

How much higher were the wages? "The earnings increases for Hispanic and black students are large enough to reduce the black-white earnings gap by one third and to eliminate the Hispanic-white earnings gap entirely."

The study concludes that every aspect of the program contributes to its success. None of its elements--cash rewards, training, or greater access to AP courses--would have the same bang for the buck on their own.

Just how important is this finding? The author claims that his study offers "the first credible evidence that implementing college-preparatory programs in existing urban schools can improve both the long-run educational and labor market outcomes of disadvantaged students."

In other words, APTIP could be the first college prep program to prove that it makes a real difference for our most vulnerable students.

Hat tip: The Education Optimists.

The Critics Are Wrong About Common Academic Standards

February 24, 2012

There has been a big dust-up over the common academic standards states have created and (for the most part) adopted in the past few years. Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institute says they won’t do any good. The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, in his curmudgeonly way, sees Loveless's point and raises it, praising Virginia for not adopting the common standards. Loveless and Mathews are among the nation’s most astute thinkers on U.S. schools, but they get this one very, very wrong.

At base, their swipe at Common Core Standards is a swipe at any academic standards. They argue, in a nutshell, that the strength of a state’s standards bears little relation to student performance in that state, so standards must not really matter all that much. Why, then, they ask, should common standards be any different?

First of all, their basic premise is pretty shaky. Observers with as much heft as Loveless and Mathews believe that better standards have indeed made a difference in states across the country. Mark Schneider, who used to head the National Center for Education Statistics, believes the standards movement that took off in the early '90s caused twenty years of big gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He notes that these gains have tapered off in the past few years but suggests that common standards can take things to the next level.

I can already hear the howls of protest: Correlation is not causation! The fact that scores went up during the standards era doesn't prove that standards had anything to do with the gains! True, but I defy you to prove that any big policy caused the gains. Standards are about as good an explanation as we can find.

Massachusetts and Minnesota, which saw some of nation's greatest gains in NAEP math scores, were among the states that went whole hog on standards-based reform in the early '90s. They adopted strong standards and then gave teachers the training, materials and support they needed to realize those standards in the classroom.

Loveless and Mathews are right about one thing: Standards don't guarantee success. Yet, like the blueprints of a building, standards a necessary condition of success. Just look at California. A think tank just rated the state's science standards among the very best in the nation, yet the state's NAEP science scores are among the nation's lowest. That should come as no surprise. In surveys, the state's teachers say they spend very little time actually teaching science. They also say they don't feel prepared to teach it well. What's more, the state's graduation requirements in science are thin, and they may well get thinner. The best standards in the world won't do a jot of good if no one pays any attention to them. The answer surely isn't to chuck the state's standards. It's far better to put good standards into actual practice.

That's the biggest lesson we should draw from Loveless and Mathews. Standards aren't enough. In fact, no single intervention is enough. That said, Common Core Standards are better than what most states have had in the past. If we truly follow through on them, they'll provide a foundation for better tests, better curriculum, better professional development, better teaching, and better learning.

By all accounts, the quality of state standards has been pretty spotty in the past, and many states have not done a great job of implementing the standards they have. The Common Core State Standards effort is a critical and long overdue opportunity to get standards-based reform right.

For more reactions to Loveless, see here, here, here and here.

Tags: standards, Common Core, Next Generation Science

Good News from Alabama

February 23, 2012

If you ever wondered whether concerted action in a state could move the needle on education, have a look at Alabama.

A new study of the state’s Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) finds that it has borne at least some fruit. AMSTI, which is in about 40 percent of the state's schools, aims to promote "hands-on, inquiry based" teaching. Teachers in AMSTI schools get professional development, teaching materials, access to technology and other supports to help them adopt new instructional practices.

Students in AMSTI schools surpassed their peers by two percentage points more on the SAT-10 math test. That might not sound like all that much, but the study’s authors note that it amounts to 28 extra days of student progress. What’s more, they (cautiously) suggest that, in two years, students would gain 4 points, or 50 days of added progress. They also found significant gains in students' reading scores. (Reading, you ask? AMSTI incorporates reading and writing into its modules.)

AMSTI isn't, of course, a home run. Gains in science were not statistically significant, and Alabama's students need more than a 2-point boost every year to compete with high-flyers in other countries.

Still, the AMSTI study should lift our spirits. We’re all too used to wearying news about programs that seem so promising but don’t deliver anything in the end. AMSTI shows that, by lining up their supports for teachers, states can get things moving in the right direction.

Hat tip: Erik Robelen.

Tags: STEM & the states

Unfilled Jobs and High Unemployment? How Is That Possible?

February 21, 2012

According to a story in Sunday’s Washington Post, as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled in this country. There is no shortage of labor: More than 12 million people remain out of work. There is, however, a shortage of skills.

The Post’s piece is the latest of several stories to suggest that manufacturing has not necessarily died and gone to China. The old type of manufacturing job, which required little more than high school degree, may well be dead and gone, however. To work in factories now, you need skills to work with the technology that now does all those old jobs--math skills, programming skills, statistics….

This is not to say that manufacturing will come roaring back, but it does underscore a grim fact. Those who lack skills will be shut out of any economic resurgence. There are millions--tens of millions--of Americans who will have to endure a permanent recession.

That problem inflicts an enormous economic cost, and an even graver social cost, on our nation.

Tags: jobs & workforce

Engineering: It's the New MBA

February 16, 2012

It wasn't long ago that most roads to the C-Suite led through the MBA. No longer. According to at least one new study, CEOs are at least as likely, if not more likely, to be engineers. To quote that study, "Engineers used to work for MBAs. Now MBAs work for engineers."

The study, by a data company called Identified, combed through millions of professional profiles on Facebook to learn more about the typical CEO. It turns out that CEOs were about as likely to have been engineering majors as business majors. Those who hold advanced degrees were about three times as likely to have an engineering degree as an MBA.

Maybe this shouldn't come as such a surprise. Engineers create things. They bring new ideas to market. They find new solutions to knotty problems. They invent.

Identified calls its report the "Revenge of the Nerds." Cool Title. The picture of Napoleon Dynamite on the cover? Less cool, because it supports the canard that engineers are socially awkward loners.

But we'll forgive them this time around. Maybe next time they'll put Iron Man on the cover.

Hat tip: Jason Koebler

Tags: STEM degrees, engineering, higher education