STEM Beats - February 2013

Common Core: Are We Supporting Those on the Front Lines?

February 22, 2013

The new MetLife Survey of the American Teacher should give us pause. It reminds us yet again that common academic standards could hit real speedbumps if teachers and principals don't get the support they need to put them in place.

One big challenge may be overconfidence. More than nine in ten teachers were "confident" or "very confident" that teachers in their school have the "academic skills and abilities to teach to the Common Core State Standards." Some studies, by contrast, paint a different picture. As Catherine Gewertz notes, they find that teachers often don't excel at teaching the kinds of higher-order skills Common Standards emphasize.

Part of the problem might be the way MetLife worded the question. Teachers may feel they have the academic muscle to teach to Common Core, but their pedagogical muscle may have atrophied from years spent on lower-order skills. For many teachers, the reality of Common Core may come as a shock.

That poses big problems for principals and teachers alike. Principals in the MetLife survey seem to be suffering something akin to shell shock. Three quarters of principals say their jobs asre too complex, seven out of ten say their job responsibilities are not very similar to what they were just five years ago, and half say they great stress at least several several times a week.

Teachers are in a similar boat. They are about as likely as principals to report suffering great stress, and their job satisfaction numbers have plummeted since 2008. These numbers needn't surprise us. Teachers and principals alike have experienced a perfect storm of new reforms and budget distress in the past five years.

But the answer is not to dial back on reforms like Common Core. Despite media reports that teachers don't like common standards, the MetLife survey joins previous surveys in finding solid teacher support for Common Core. The bigger issue is support. School veterans have gotten used to seeing wave after wave of reform surge and then recede. THey're weary of reforms that come with little coherent support to ensure their success. Our state Vital Signs reports found that many math and science teachers, particularly those who teach low income students, lack the resources they need.

Teachers in the MetLife Survey made it very clear that they would welcome such resources, which include coaching, teaching materials, and tools to track their students' process. Yet it's still devilishly difficult to figure out whether states are actually on track to providing such resources. If Common Core supporters don't want this reform to recede like so many others before it, they had better be vigilant.

Tags: Common Core

This Day in STEM -- February 20

February 20, 2013

It's been a big week for space and STEM -- we wrote last Friday about Galileo's birthday, Google celebrated Copernicus' 540th birthday yesterday, and today's the anniversary of the first time an American went into orbit. Fifty-one years ago today, astronaut John Glenn made his famous flight. For such a short month, quite a lot of historic events happened in February! 

Tags: This Day in STEM

This Day in STEM -- February 16

February 14, 2013

Happy birthday, dear Galileo!

Today, one of history's most prolific scientists and mathematicians, Galileo Galilei, would be 449 years old. Galileo was an equal-opportunity STEM achiever, working in pure and applied science and mathematics. He discovered Jovian moons and improved a new invention called the telescope. He championed heliocentrism, and invented the compass. 

The son of a well-known lutenist and music theoretician, Galileo grew up in Florence and Pisa, and was educated at a monastery and the University of Pisa. Although his father originally wanted him to study medicine, he discovered geometry, and the rest was history. He studied physics and mathematics, and In one famous thought experiment, he imagined dropping objects of different masses from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to prove that objects fall and accelerate at the same rate. After hearing about the invention of a telescope, he immediately invented a new, improved version. Eventually, using evidence gathered with the telescope, he supported the Copernican theory that the sun sat in the center of the universe.  

This belief -- as well as the brashness with which he presented it -- eventually landed him in hot water. In 1616, he was prohibited by Church authority from speaking out about Copernican theory. As a strict Catholic, he abided by that rule. In 1623, though, when Pope Urban -- whom he considered a friend -- was appointed, Urban allowed him to write about astronomy, provided it was objective and didn't advocate. However, the piece that came about, Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was anything but objective, and Galileo was put on trial for heresy and sentenced to house arrest. He spent nine years under house arrest, defying the church's orders that he not have visitors nor publish any original scientific work, and died in 1642.

Galileo's inventions and discoveries have withstood the test of time. His work in motion and mechanics set the stage for later thinkers like Isaac Newton. He was one of the first to find order in the natural world, and many consider him the father of modern science. 

Tags: This Day in STEM

CTEq members support efforts in education

February 12, 2013

Today  in a full page letter published in the New York Times, 42 Change the Equation companies voiced their support for the Common Core initiative. Mindful of challenges ahead — like disappointing initial test scores leading to public backlash — the corporate community  provided very public support for work underway in states, districts, and classrooms nationwide to improve student performance on world-class content. We applaud the resolve of education leaders who are determined to succeed on such a worthy goal.  

For there is much to do. We learned yesterday that ninth graders in Georgia did poorly on the first administration of an algebra test tied to the Common Core State Standards. Almost 60 percent of Georgia students did not pass the end-of-course exam in a new course called Coordinate Algebra.  Similar to earlier results from Florida and Kentucky, there was a significant drop in the number of students who were proficient on rigorous assessments tied to the rigorous Common Core content.

To their credit, these states do not plan to water down the rigor of courses or assessments.  Recognizing that Common Core describes the knowledge and skills needed for success in the workplace and in life, education officials have re-affirmed their commitment to ensuring widespread student mastery in rigorous coursework.

Tags: Common Core

STEM is Critical, but Don't Knock the Liberal Arts

February 12, 2013

In January came news that computer scientists and engineers again commanded the highest salaries right out of college in 2012. That news prompted fresh chorus of voices deriding degrees in “softer” subjects like English or art history as a waste of time and money. That’s unfortunate. We’re very big fans of efforts to get more young people into computers and engineering, but it makes no sense, none at all, to dismiss other whole disciplines in the process.

It is true that computer scientists and engineers (along with other STEM majors) have weathered the recent downturn pretty well. Not only did they get paid better than most, they tended to hold on to their jobs. Not every STEM worker has come through great recession unscathed, however. Our own research found that civil engineers, for example, faced tough odds as spending on infrastructure dried up. On balance, though, people in STEM fields had more opportunities than those who didn’t, and companies faced a shortage of STEM talent, even in lean times.

But that’s no reason to go on about “useless” or “worthless” majors. If everyone were dead set on being an engineer, we’d have a lot of unemployed engineers—and those who did find a job would work for nickels and dimes. By our own expansive definition, STEM jobs make up about 13 percent of all jobs. Although that percentage will grow in the coming years, that still leaves a big piece of the pie for non-STEM majors. Surely we have room for English, history, or (gasp) visual arts majors.

Those who scoff at the arts or humanities miss an important point: Arts and humanities majors can do quite well for themselves if they have strong STEM skills. A great writer can do well in marketing, but she had better understand data. A wonderful designer can help create killer apps, but he had better have a good grasp of technology. In fact, researchers at Georgetown found that the vast majority of jobs require STEM skills. The flip side of that argument is that a strong grounding in the arts and humanities can give people with STEM skills a real edge in the job market. Even Tom Friedman, that apostle of STEM skills, counseled engineering schools to offer more music.

So, if you’re going to major in the arts or humanities, all the power to you. But take advanced math. Learn how to program. Seek out skills that will help you carry your passions into the world of work.

The rest of us should stop sneering at visual art, French literature, or any other field that that seems impractical or arcane. Even engineers and computer scientists wouldn’t suffer from a bit of Manet or Molière.

Tags: jobs & workforce