What is the number one most employable field in the country these days? The actuarial field, according to NPR. So are people rushing to become actuaries? Hardly. In popularity, the field ranks 150th out of 173 fields studied by Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.
So what is an actuary? The fact that so few people know the answer to that question no doubt contributes mightily to the field's lack of popularity. Actuaries calculate the potential impact of uncertainty and risk. They commonly work in areas like finance and insurance (of course) but can also work for private companies, the government and non-profits. And, you guessed it, actuaries need to know a lot of math.
This odd mismatch between job opportunities and job interests is not confined to the actuarial field. It's a perverse feature of the modern job market. As Tony Carnevale of Georgetown tells NPR, "in many cases, the most popular majors pay the least and have the highest unemployment rate." Popularity itself can of course be part of the problem, creating too much supply and driving down wages. Yet there is little evidence (so far) that students are flooding into the most employable fields, the vast majority of which require a very strong grounding in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).
The NPR story has attracted dozens of comments from people who say they did not pursue fields that are faring well in the current job market. Here's part of an especially poignant comment:
There was NEVER a single adult who laid out the facts of life for me in a way that the media didn't then totally trump with idealistic visions of personal importance and a supposedly endless availability of options.... No one, not even our parents, was an ally or advocate for our science/math education....
Now there are really no easy options and I'm scrambling to try to figure out how to
For the numerologists among you, tomorrow is either an auspicious or an ominous day. It’s 11/11/11, after all, and it comes but once a century.
Let's start with prognostications of doom. A new horror film (opening tomorrow, of course) paints it as a day when a malign force will enter the world and fill it with suffering (and gore). Some people predict that it will mark the start of end times. (Harold Camping, as it happens is not among them. He vowed to be more circumspect after predicting three raptures that never came to pass.)
Now for the more hopeful news. Some believe 11/11/11 will be a very good day. The number 11 is somehow full of promise, perky, easy to multiply by other numbers and nicely symmetrical. Nowadays, many numerologists think 11/11/11 will usher in some sort of global harmonic convergence or "shift in consciousness." It might even inspire another tax plan.
There is one small problem with all this dreadful or cheerful speculation. Tomorrow's date is actually 11/11/2011. The “20” in "2011" sort of mucks things up. The truly momentous day occurred 900
The headline of a recent story in The New York Times tells only part of an important story: "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)." Yes, it can be hard, but universities can also suck the life out of it. (The Times uses "science" here as shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math, or "STEM." Here's the article's money quote: "Some of the best-prepared students find engineering education too narrow and lacking the passion of other fields." There may be a lesson here for K-12 schools, too.
Of course, difficulty and boredom can be co-conspirators in driving students out of STEM fields. If students who did well in math and science find their classes uninspiring, those with a shakier foundation in STEM don't even stand a chance.
The Times story profiles Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which has sought to make STEM more engaging through much more applied learning. In the '70s, WPI "ripped up its traditional curriculum...to make room for extensive research, design and social-service projects by juniors and seniors, including many conducted on trips with professors overseas." (The Times might also want to have a look at
I think teachers should encourage [their students] to work on really big, really hard, really tough problems—the consequence of which, compared to giving them the safe road, they probably will unfortunately fail, and fail again, and fail again. The teachers need to give kids enough self-confidence so that they realize it's the project that failed, and not the student.
Students need to learn enough from their failures so that they can be re-energized, refocused, and with their new knowledge and new experience and new scars on their back, they can go out and succeed.
I don't think there are any big wins that aren't the result of a lot of losses. I think teachers need to
Get a load of this: "As of last week [the] company had 13 positions open and had gone to job boards, recruiters and even hosted technology-focused meet-ups to find people. In September, the company hired its first senior vice president for human capital to help with recruitment." In the current job market, that quotation sounds like a relic of the go-go 90's, a time when jobs were plentiful and people were scarce.
But it's not. It's a passage from a very recent New York Times article on the scarcity of jobs in advertising. Now don't get too excited just because you're creative and think you can write good ad copy. it turns out that ad agencies are looking for much more than just that. They're looking for people with skills in math and technology.
The 2011 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) just came out, and they're prompting all sorts of gloomy commentary. The lead story on the Huffington Post education page pretty much sums up what we're hearing from many pundits: "Performance Still Dismal On 2011 National Math, Reading Tests." But we shouldn't forget the bright side.
Let's start with the reasons for gloom. In math, forty percent of fourth graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above "proficient." Gaps between low-income and higher-income students were as wide as ever. In all, these NAEP scores drive home the fact that we have far to go in math. Our nation's high schoolers do worse than their peers in 17 developed nations--and better than peers in only four others.
Now for the bright side. Math scores ticked upward in 4th and 8th grades, if only slightly. If we take the long view, things look better. As Kevin Carey notes, US students, especially students of color, have made big gains since 1990: "In 1990, 50 percent of fourth graders failed to score at the 'Basic' level of proficiency in math. They were innumerate. Today, that number is 18 percent. The percent of students meeting the much higher 'Proficient' standard has more than tripled, from 14 to 47 percent."
As Carey and others point out, we shouldn't let ourselves get too excited. Twelfth grade scores have gone nowhere for years, suggesting that students lose ground again in high school. (Some argue that the disappointing results in 12th grade have at least something to do with the challenge of getting seniors to take a no-stakes test like NAEP seriously.)
But we should take courage from the gains in 4th and 8th grades. We have not moved fast enough, but the gains have been real. Change is possible if we set our minds to it. All the more reason, therefore, to redouble our efforts.