STEM Beats - July 2012

In Defense of Algebra

July 30, 2012

Just because most babies cry when receiving disease-preventing vaccinations doesn’t mean that pediatricians and parents should halt the practice.  Reasonable people realize that that the benefit outweighs the cost. Andrew Hacker’s article in the New York Times, “Is Algebra Necessary?” starts from the questionable premise that since many students do poorly in algebra, they should not be subjected to learning it. 

Success in algebra matters.  The question we should be asking is what algebra should be taught.  If it is merely computation with variables—first with whole numbers, then with fractions, then with decimals—we can justly question its usefulness in this age of technology.  But algebra is so much more than that.  The Common Core State Standards in mathematics call for students to be able to create equations that describe numerical relationships, to be able to reason abstractly and quantitatively, to be able to persevere at solving problems.  Students as early as kindergarten, in Common Core, begin to practice the skills and knowledge leading up to mastery of algebra.  A strong foundation in number operations and algebraic thinking will position many more students to succeed in a well-conceived, well-taught algebra class. In STEM Help Wanted, Change the Equation’s analysis of online job postings and unemployment data in the past three years finds that, even in a tough economy, STEM opens doors.  Unemployed people outnumbered online job postings by well more than three to one. Yet job postings outnumbered unemployed people with a STEM background by almost two to one. Mastery of STEM, in preparation for a wide array of careers, is not possible without mastery of algebra, which is the language of STEM.

Corporate America understands that on-the-job-training will always be needed.  Cutting-edge products and ideas inevitably require employees to learn new things.  But, corporate America understandably balks at on-the-job-training that covers content that should have been learned—like algebra—before joining the workforce.    

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.  Instead, let’s ensure that all students master algebraic thinking and problem-solving, the essence of algebra, regardless of their eventual career goals.    

Update: This blog was cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

Tags: math, Common Core

We're Not the Only Ones

July 26, 2012

Even with our concerns about the global economy, it's sometimes easy to forget that other countries are concerned about their STEM performance as well. Despite the Olympic fervor across the pond, Britain's Parliament this week released a report finding that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, responsible for ensuring that British university students are held to and reach high standards, has not properly prepared graduates for the economic market.

According to the Times of London, the report, released by the House of Lords, charges that the QAA has not set a high enough bar for graduation, leaving students underprepared when it is time for them to enter the job market. The findings on higher education are two-pronged: First, despite high numbers of students supposedly majoring in STEM, that reported figure is buoyed by students studying "soft" subjects. The Committee would like to see more students studying harder sciences, particularly "maths" (how veddy British). Second, the QAA has not set standards high enough, and students therefore are earning a degree without a true understanding of STEM.

The committee did not blame the QAA, but the system instead. The way the QAA is set up doesn't allow it to make those changes, according to the House of Lords. The report also took a look at secondary education, noting that despite passing math A-levels (British high-school final exams), many students require remediation at the university level.

Most interesting from a CTEq perspective, though, is the recommendation that the education community work with the business community to align what students are being taught with what employers need workers to have.  Smoothing out the STEM pipeline -- in any country -- will help create a stronger workforce and better equip students to be successful in their jobs.

One added note: For all their concern, the Brits are ahead of us in international tests of math and science.

Tags: standards

Sally Ride, 1951-2012

July 24, 2012

This morning, The Washington Post published a moving portrait of space pioneer and Change the Equation Board member Sally Ride. The piece portrays her as a brilliant, courageous, generous and highly principled woman with a passion for inspiring young people, especially girls, about science.

That is exactly how we knew her. Her limitless energy, tireless dedication and keen insight have been critical to shaping CTEq’s work in our first two years. Her memory will impel us forward for many more. We will sorely miss her.

A Little Parent Intervention Goes a Long Way, Study Finds

July 22, 2012

We often focus on maximizing class time to get students to engage with math and science, but it's important to remember that learning also begins at home, and that parents matter in education. Involving parents -- even a little -- can go a long way.

A recent study in Psychological Science, in fact, showed that when schools underscore the importance of STEM to parents, their children were more likely to enroll, and stay enrolled, in STEM courses.

It's long been understood that parent education has a huge impact on the child's education: Children of more highly educated parents tend to enroll in harder courses. In the study, though, researchers found that small educational interventions could have nearly as great an impact as parental education level.

Researchers implemented a modest intervention, mailing parents in the experimental group first a brochure on the importance of math and science in 10th grade, followed up in 11th grade by a second brochure and a web site link on STEM career fields and STEM in college. Researchers then analyzed what high-school coursework the children of the parents receiving information took, and compared it to a control group. They found that the children whose parents had received a little extra information took, on average, an extra semester of more-difficult math and science: Algebra II, Calc, Trig, get the picture. The researchers concluded that parents are an "untapped resource" in promoting STEM education.

If we use this information the right way, this study could have a significant impact on student achievement and interest in STEM. Multiple studies show that students, particularly younger ones, often inherit math anxiety from parents or teachers, and taking a more active effort at informing parents younger could prove fruitful. You could also apply this sort of parent interaction to more rigorous high-school coursework, and emphasize AP or IB tests to parents. This finding is a great start, and worth exploring more as we think about how to make a sustainable, long-term impact on the STEM pipeline.

A Corps of STEM Master Teachers

July 18, 2012

Today President Barack Obama announced the immediate creation of new national corps of leading math and science educators to improve education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The STEM Master Teacher Corps initiative aims to help schools and districts do what they haven’t traditionally done very well: broaden the reach of our best teachers. The program has some hurdles to clear, but it could have a real impact if it succeeds in creating a culture of professional learning in schools.

Master teachers will model lessons, lead professional development, help with school turnaround efforts and mentoring younger teachers, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In exchange for their services, the teachers will receive up to $20,000 more in salary each year. The stakes for this effort are high. It is well known that U.S. students lag far behind their peers in top performing nations, and companies are having trouble filling STEM jobs, even during the downturn. As STEM jobs continue to grow, shortages will only become more acute, and the U.S. risks losing its innovative edge, Teachers can have an enormous impact on student performance, yet all too many teachers of math and science lack degrees in the fields they teach. As rigorous new common standards in math and science come down the pike, teachers will need all the mentoring they can get to come up to speed.

The STEM Master Teacher initiative is ambitious. It aims to include10,000 teachers over the next four years. (Compare that to Teach for America, which just reached the 10,000 milestone this past fall, more than 20 years after its founding.) Given that there are almost 100,000 schools in the country, we’ll need every one of those Master Teachers.

Even when it reaches full force, the program will have to address multiple challenges. Among them:

  • Create strong professional learning cultures that help Master Teachers share their gifts and expertise. This is harder than it seems. Master teachers can be very effective, but only if their schools and districts have structures in place to promote true collaboration among teachers and other staff. Schools, may, for example, have to reconceive their schedules to give teachers time for common planning.
  • Ensure that the Master Teachers go—and stay—where they’re needed most. Nowhere are strong professional learning cultures more important than in struggling low-income schools. All too often, our most accomplished teachers move from such schools to more stable high-income schools after they have a few years under their belts.  Turnover at struggling schools is notoriously high and disruptive. Master Teachers will need strong incentives to stay at schools that serve our most vulnerable children.

There is, of course, one more immediate hurdle the STEM Master Teacher initiative faces. It depends on the success of the president’s budget request, which includes $1 billion for the program. In these lean times, that money is hardly a foregone conclusion. The President is getting the ball rolling with an initial investment of $100 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF),which will support the program at 50 sites across the nation. According to Secretary Duncan, more than 30 school districts have already signaled interest in the new TIF grants. (Proposals are due on July 27). This early investment may give the Education Department, districts and schools time to work through some of the biggest challenges before the program goes to scale.

The good news is that the STEM Master Teacher initiative comes amidst a broad national focus on boosting the quality of STEM teaching. Last year, for example, the President announced the 100Kin10 initiative, which rallied more than 100 organizations (including Change the Equation) around the goal of bringing 100,000 excellent new STEM teachers into classrooms.

None of these initiatives is easy, but we can’t face our biggest national challenges by making do with small-bore solutions.