STEM Beats - STEM & the states

Science: the Forgotten Stepchild of School Reform?

October 26, 2011

Brace yourself for some shocking statistics. In California:

  • Only 44 percent of elementary school principals think it is likely that their students would  get strong science instruction in their schools.
  • Only one third of elementary teachers feel prepared to teach science.
  • Forty percent say they spend less than an hour a week teaching science.
  • A whopping 85 percent say they haven't received any professional development in science in the past three years.

These are among the findings of a new study on the state of science education in California. The authors note that the state's 4th grade science scores (PDF) place it near the bottom of the nation. They speculate that the state's accountability system, which focuses mostly on math and reading, has drawn schools' attention away from science.

The problem isn't limited to California. The national Schools and Staffing Survey found that, in the U.S. as a whole, elementary teachers on average spent 2.3 hours a week on science in 2008, a big drop from the three hour average in 1994. Parhaps not as dire as California, but bad enough.

if states adopt Common Standards in science--and if common tests follow, as many believe they will--schools may well have to reassess how much time they spend on science..



Tags: standards, STEM & the states

Hard Choices about Soft Skills

August 16, 2011

Amidst all the talk of college for every student, some employers are voicing very different concerns. A college education won’t amount to a hill of beans, they argue, if young people lack the common sense to come to work on time, dress appropriately, and interact with customers and colleagues in a professional way. These “soft skills” are at least as important as math and writing skills, they claim.

Lawmakers in Georgia have heard these employers' concerns loud and clear. A bill that has made it through the General Assembly would weave "soft skills" into the high school curriculum and create a certificate for students who master those skills.

Some Georgians are uneasy about this move. Schools have enough to worry about when so many of their students can't do basic math, they argue. Parents, and not schools, should be teaching common sense. Maureen Downey of The Atlanta Journal Constitution suggests that students would "learn those lessons on their own once they’re fired a few times for showing up late or baring their skull-head tattoos at work."

Yet employers in Georgia aren't content to wait for parents or teens to sort the problem out on their own. Are they right to push "soft skills" into the schools?

Tags: STEM & the states

Fifty Different Definitions of "Proficient"

August 11, 2011

What does "proficiency" mean? In many U.S. states, not much.

A new report confirms what we already knew: Many states set the bar in reading and math much, much lower than the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) does. In both 4th and 8th grade math, only one state--Massachusetts--set the bar for proficiency at or above "proficiency" as defined by NAEP. Nine states set the bar for "proficiency" in 4th grade math so low that it would rate as "below basic" on NAEP. Things look even worse in 8th grade math, where 11 states are aiming for "below basic." What most other states consider proficient would rate as "basic" on NAEP.

Perhaps most shocking is the extreme inconsistency among states. A student deemed "proficient" in Savannah could could fall far below that mark if she moved to Seattle. And yet math is math whether you're in Georgia or Washington. More important, the demand for math skills may soon be pretty much the same whether you live in Savannah, Seattle or Shanghai.

The push towards common standards and tests might remedy this situation. Time will tell. The challenge will be to set an appropriate bar and then stick with it. As it stands in too many states, good just isn't good enough.

Tags: standards, STEM & the states

Key Ingredients for Creating World-Class Schools

June 28, 2011


Today's guest post is written by Linda Fandel, special assistant for education to Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad.

Being good at math and science is a ticket to a prosperous future – for young people, the state, and the nation. That’s why Iowa’s overall drop in the rankings on national tests is alarming. And why the achievement gap, between Hispanic and African-American students on the one hand and white students on the other, is tragic.

A much greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is needed. How can we engage more students in these subjects? Which programs work best to boost achievement? How can business and industry play a greater role in shaping what is taught in school, so it’s relevant to the real world? All of this must happen as part of creating world-class schools.

Iowa’s statistics are troubling:  Iowa eighth-graders on average scored first in math in 1992 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But by 2009, they had tumbled to 28th place, with 16 states or jurisdictions scoring significantly higher.

And between 2003 and 2009, no state’s eighth-graders made less progress in math on those tests except West Virginia’s. Indeed, white Iowa eighth-graders saw no academic growth in that period.

Now look at Iowa’s achievement gap: In 2009, there was a 21-point gap in the average math performance of white and Hispanic eighth-graders compared to a national gap of 26 points. The gap between Iowa’s black and white eighth-graders in math in 2009 was 28 points compared to the national gap of 32 points.

The movement to adopt common educational standards by most states – including Iowa – won’t be enough by itself to improve the grim statistics. Instruction must become more effective, including better preparing elementary teachers to teach math and science.

Students struggling to learn need more help early on. The culture of expectations in and outside schools has to change. We will leave our children at a disadvantage if we fail to put in place policies that give them a globally competitive education.

That’s what the world’s highest-performing school systems have done. They were not always international academic stars, but decided to deliberately transform education, and saw success.

The Change the Equation website calls for “Great Teaching,” “Inspired Learners, and “A Committed Nation” to improve STEM education. Iowa should lead the way in meeting that challenge.

This blog was also posted today on Linda Fandel’s Iowa Education blog.


Tags: STEM & the states

Raising the Bar: Providing America’s Kids with a True 21st-Century Education

June 14, 2011

 Today's guest post is written by Susan Castillo, Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Let’s face it. The U.S. education system is not all it once was. Our system has failed to adapt to our rapidly changing world and as a result our students, our communities, our businesses, and our nation all suffer. The U.S. ranks 17thout of 65 industrialized countries in terms of student achievement, and every year our colleges and employers spend billions of dollars on remediation because our students just aren’t graduating with the skills they need to succeed. We can – and we must – do better. 

In Oregon, where I serve as State Superintendent of Public Instruction, we have taken a long, hard look at what knowledge and skills our students need in order to be successful in today’s, and tomorrow’s, global economy. We have made a commitment to higher expectations and have adopted more rigorous, proficiency-based graduation requirements to ensure students leave our schools prepared for college and careers.

Making significant changes to our educational system is not easy in the best of times – and given the continued budget pressures our schools and communities are facing, these are definitely not the best of times. However, it is critical that we tackle these important issues and face head-on the realities of education in our country.

What does it mean to provide students with a 21st-century education? Rigor is one aspect. No longer can students expect to get a family-wage job on a high school diploma alone. But it also means providing students with access to the 21st-century tools they will be using in college and the workplace. We know that integrating technology into the classroom increases student engagement, empowerment, creativity, and collaboration, and it allows teachers to better differentiate instruction and personalize the learning experience for students. 

The jobs of tomorrow will rely much more heavily on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills than ever before. Today, in addition to language arts literacy, our students also need STEM literacy. That is why I have been working with educators in my state to develop a STEM Education Framework to provide a clear road map for STEM integration across subjects and grades and a STEM Education Center to provide statewide support to schools on this important topic.

By raising the bar, focusing more on STEM, integrating technology into the classroom, and providing our students and teachers with the supports they need to succeed, I believe we can transform our education system and graduate students ready to compete. But we can’t do it alone. We need the support of our communities and our business partners as we move forward with this important work. Whether it is by volunteering in our schools, donating educational technology tools, or advocating for increased rigor and higher expectations, community and business involvement can make all the difference.

It will take all of us working together to transform our current education system into a true 21st-century system that educates, empowers, and inspires students to be tomorrow’s innovators and leaders. Student by student, school by school, we can work together to build the education system that our students deserve and our nation needs.


Tags: STEM & the states