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Change the Equation Blog

The CTEq blog is the voice for STEM learning, offering insightful research and fun facts. We welcome your thoughts and encourage you to post your comments.

Friday, June 8, 2012 - 06:22

On Monday, we lamented the fact that a major retailer ran an ad featuring tech innovators who were all white men. That seemed like a lost opportunity to celebrate female and minority role models like Marc Hannah or Dr. Mae Jemison. "Let's hope we'll soon see a new set of ads that celebrate a more diverse set of pioneers," we concluded.

It turns out that our wish had already been answered. The day before, that same retailer premiered an ad about "Future Innovators" whose inventions include invisible touch screens and soccer balls that generate power. Most are young women, and one is black. That's certainly a better ratio than in the previous ad. It helps us envision a more diverse STEM workforce in the coming decades.

Keep 'em coming.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - 06:51

The estimable Llewellyn King has some advice for us math and science activists. "Stop haranguing [children] about math and science," he writes. "Math and science are not the same thing; related, yes, identical, no. Math intimidates a lot of children.... Consequently, many young minds are lost to the glorious world of science because they fear that they must pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Math." There is a grain of truth in what he writes, but it may well get lost amidst all his troubling preconceptions about math.

It's not easy to get past King's tone. He lays it on awfully thick with the "Valley of the Shadow of Math" image. Only someone who doesn't much like the subject could see math as a dark trial that stands between students and their redemption through other subjects like science. Indeed, King remembers being "the very worst math student who ever tried addition." All too many adults portray math as a bitter pill.

His claim later on that our "creative footprint across this world" proves that our nation is doing just fine in math, thank you very much, has worn more than a little thin. Just have a look at the most recent Gathering Storm report from the National Academies to see how quickly that world is catching up to us. Our Googles and Facebooks might not always come to us as easily as the leaves to a tree.

Yet here's the grain of truth: As long as we teach math as something ponderous and scary, we aren't doing students any favors. King was "scared off" of math by his teachers, which is why he seems to believe that math is something frightful--unless students learn it in the pursuit of other things.

To be sure, many young people will take to math more easily if they have the chance to see its power to shape the real world they live in. Students need to see the relevance of what they're learning. Math and science activists agree wholeheartedly with that premise.

Yet let's not fall into the all-too-common trap of portraying math as something inherently forbidding. Too many of our elementary teachers come into classrooms with that attitude, and it rubs off on their students.

King may well have his teachers to thank for his early fear of math. Much like those teachers, he risks passing on that terrible legacy.

Monday, June 4, 2012 - 08:54

Janaye Ingram had a visceral reaction after seeing a recent TV ad for a big chain store that sells electronics. The ad features a parade of men who have created new technologies or tech businesses.

"Anyone notice a trend? Anyone notice something missing?" she asks. Not one woman. Not one person of color. That prompts another question: "Aren’t there any females or blacks who are technology inventors or is it just that they and their products aren’t well known or widely consumed?"

To be sure, the tech fields have been dominated by white men. Women and people of color are woefully scarce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As the demand for STEM talent grows, it's getting harder to ignore this major imbalance. For the first time last year, more than half of all babies born in the U.S. were born to parents of color. We can hardly rest easy when such a huge share of our population is shut out of careers that will drive the nation's growth and prosperity.

So what to do? For starters, let's acknowledge those women and people of color who are in the vanguard of technological change. Ingram writes that "Our students need to know names like Marc Hannah, Dr. Mae Jemison, Tiffani Bell and Amos Winbush," all African Americans who are part of the science and technology revolution. Role models like them can inspire more women and students of color to follow their lead.

Let's hope we'll soon see a new set of ads that celebrate a more diverse set of pioneers.

Thursday, May 31, 2012 - 08:05

It seems we’ve crossed one digital divide only to find another. The old worry was that the tech revolution would pass low-income youth by, because devices and internet access didn’t come cheap. According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, unequal access to technology may be less of a concern than differences in how students use that technology.

The Times notes that we’ve narrowed, if not closed, the technology gap between the haves and the have nots. Yet it points to findings by the Kaiser Family Foundation (among other sources) that low-income youth tend to spend much more time on their devices than their wealthier peers do--and very little time using them for educational purposes.

Why the difference? Experts speculate that low-income parents, who have little experience with technology themselves, are less able to regulate their children's use of technology.

One possible answer is better training for parents and students in how to use technology. The Times reports that the FCC is apparently weighing a proposal to "spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers."

Here's another idea: Let's revive computer science in schools. Douglas Rushkoff poses this critical question in his book Program or Be Programmed: "Do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it?"

The answer should be clear. If we spread access to technology without without equipping students to understand, apply and create technology, then the end of the digital divide might turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 - 08:19

The government's new report on "The Condition of Education" in 2012 contains good news and bad news. More to the point, it reveals critical areas where there is no news, because we lack vital data. Those blind spots seriously hinder our decision making.

Let's start with some good news. Scores in 4th and 8th grade have been steadily rising over the past two decades. In high school, more students have been taking challenging math and science classes. In 2009, 16 percent of high school graduates had taken calculus, up from 7 percent in 1990. In Algebra II, coursetaking rose from 54 to 76 percent. Geometry? Sixty-four to 88 percent. Science shows similar results. In Chemistry, for example, coursetaking in Chemistry rose from 49 to 70 percent over the same time period.

Now for some bad news. Scores in 12th grade math haven't really budged over the past twenty years. It's not entirely clear why. Some argue that high school seniors are much less likely than 4th or 8th graders to take a no-stakes test like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) seriously. Others say that higher course titles can be deceiving. A course that bears the name of Algebra II, for example, might really be a close cousin of Algebra I--or worse. Whatever the reason, the lack of movement in 12th grade scores should worry us, because it suggests that at least some of those 4th and 8th grade gains are evaporating in high school.

And now no news. How much progress have our 12th graders been making in science? We don't know, because the framework for the science NAEP changed in 2009, making long-term comparisons impossible. How are individual states doing in 12th grade math and science? We're not sure, because no states take part on the 12th grade science test, and only 11 states take part in the math test.

Unfortunately, it's not true that no news is good news. If we're serious about getting many more students ready for college and careers in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), we can't very well tolerate such a serious blind spot in 12th grade.

Friday, May 25, 2012 - 05:28

On occasion, CTEq welcomes guest blogs about key issues or engaging ideas that may be of interest to our audience. Lorita D. Watson, a Brooklyn Technical alumnae, is the founder of Empowerment via Education and Technology.

The New York City public high school system is 70% African- Americans and Latinos, yet they represent less than 15% of the population in the city’s competitive specialized high schools. And many students are not immediately ready for the challenge of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), which has been in existence by law since 1972 and is the only objective means of entering these prestigious schools. Each year, more than 25,000 students take the test in hopes of gaining one of the 5,000 open seats.

Yet the tide may be turning, thanks in large part to concerned alumni. After decades of continuous decline, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Technical—known as the Big 3—as well as the five newer schools, noted a 14% rise in 2012 of African-American and Latino students. 

As graduates of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Technical high schools, the Black Brown Big 3 alumni know what is required to succeed in a rigorous program.  Most of us came from neighborhood schools around the city that once created a pipeline for the specialized schools by offering Special Programs (SP) for talented and gifted students.  In contrast, today only a handful of neighborhood schools are deemed Gifted and Talented, such as Mark Twain Middle School, which continues to be a pipeline for specialized high schools. 

Alumni stepped up to the plate in several ways:

  • Black Stuyvesant Alumni offer test preparation and mentoring.  They have an ongoing program called Why Stuy?  Students tour and meet with current students, faculty and alumni.  Last summer they reached out to 800 students, including about 300 who attended the September Open House and 120 who participated in SHSAT boot camp. 
  • The Science Schools Initiative, a program with outstanding results, provides low cost SHSAT preparation. 
  • Black Brown Big 3 focuses on bringing together over 800 alumni via social networking disseminating information, including policy, scholarships, programs and NYC Department of Education happenings (letter to Assemblyman Camera). 

In addition to academic support, alumni offer mentoring, as many African American and Latino students don’t feel as though they fit in.  Realizing part of the challenge was having qualified students take the test, local alumni did outreach at each NY DOE high school information sessions in all boroughs, speaking to parents and students about the benefits of attending these schools.

Those benefits are enormous. For example, many graduates of Brooklyn Technical, the largest STEM high school in country, go on to prestigious colleges and universities and pursue noteworthy and lucrative STEM careers.  These specialized high schools are the gateway to the world.

For more insight on NYC’s specialized high schools, watch the Inside Schools segment.


Thursday, May 24, 2012 - 07:40

Will girls get more interested in science if we feminize it, make it more stereotypically "girly"? Not really, say the authors of a new study out of the University of Michigan. In fact, such efforts might even do more harm than good.

Girls often lose interest in math and science when they're in middle school, leading some to speculate that feminizing those subject might help turn things around. The U of M researchers put this idea to the test, showing middle schools successful women displaying traditionally feminine characteristics such as makeup and pink clothes. Girls exposed to such role models reported a decrease of interest in math and science.

Girls were more motivated by images of female scientists dressed in more gender-neutral clothes, wearing glasses or reading. The study's authors speculate that "girls not interested in math and science saw simultaneous success in both domains at least attainable, suggesting that their lack of motivation was related to the perceived unlikelihood of combining femininity and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] success."

In other words, traditionally feminine images carry so much baggage that they erode girls' interest in STEM.

So should we demonize makeup and the color pink? Certainly not, unless we want fuel the very<--break-> stereotypes we strive against. Yet if the study is right (and we should always treat single studies like this one with caution), then "feminizing" math and science in the most superficial sense may not be the way to go.

Yet let's not conclude that we should therefore present math and science in the same way to girls and boys. Study after study has shown that girls are more likely to respond to STEM fields when they see how much value work in those fields can bring to society. Concern for the greater good is not an exclusively feminine trait, mind you. But a focus on the social impact of STEM might affect girls more strongly than visions of pink dresses do.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - 21:11

Look no farther than Florida for a vision of what may come. State leaders put tougher 8th-grade writing tests into place and then blanched when the passing rates plunged from 81 to 27 percent. The state then turned tail and lowered the passing bar. We don’t want to repeat that storyline when tougher common math and English tests come on line in two or three years. The political pressures to back down from a high bar will be formidable. It’s not a moment too soon to prepare the public for what to expect.

The common tests states are creating to align with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will by most accounts be more challenging than what most states have in place now. The math tests will require students to show better abstract reasoning ability, make sense of problems, and model with math, for example. If states adopt the common tests, they will have to set common passing scores on those tests amidst major public scrutiny. They can’t very well set a low bar without attracting a lot of notice. When students who did fine on the old tests don't clear the higher bar, states will have some explaining to do, and their resolve to stick with common standards and tests may waver.

Yet they don't have to follow in Florida's footsteps. Just look at Tennessee. When the state raised the bar in 7th grade math in 2009, passing rates on the test dropped from more than 90 percent to under 30 percent in one year. This came as no surprise to Tennessee leaders, who had already mounted an aggressive public awareness campaign called "Expect More, Achieve More." The campaign made clear that earlier results were vastly inflated and made higher expectations a point of pride. There has been no very serious public backlash.

States across the country can follow Tennessee's lead. Even though the vast majority have adopted the common standards and seem open to common tests, many still have low expectations for their students. It's not too early for them to follow Tennessee's lead and raise the bar while preparing students and parents for the coming shock. Why simply postpone the inevitable?

None of this is easy. No Child Left Behind's goal of lifting all students to proficiency by 2014 seems more than a little naive as states raise the bar. And big changes to the tests are complicating states' plans to rate teachers on their students' growth as measured by those tests.

Some of this is the price of progress. States and the feds need to adjust their policies so that higher standards don't wreak havoc in the short term. But if states beat a retreat on standards, we'll have lost the battle and the war.

Monday, May 21, 2012 - 15:38

The past three years have been pretty bleak on the employment front. If you have a background in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), however, they might not have been quite that bad.

The chart below tells the story of how people with STEM skills faced very different prospects from most other people in the job market. Just glance over the chart--Don't read it in detail. Wherever you see warm colors, job postings outnumbered unemployed people. Where you see cool colors, unemployed people outnumbered job postings. The overwhelmingly warm columns to the left show the STEM occupations. The overwhelmingly cool colors to the right show other occupational areas: Finance, management, office administration, and all occupations taken together. What a dramatic difference.

In every state, unemployed people with STEM backgrounds fared better than those in other areas. All those business leaders might not just be crying wolf when they claim that they can't fill STEM positions even in times of high unemployment.

To get a closer look at the at the state-by-state information below, have a look at our recent report, STEM Help Wanted.

Table of Job Prospects for STEM and non-STEM employees

Friday, May 18, 2012 - 07:33

How do we boost our students’ performance in math? Do what the top-performing countries do: Adopt and then teach to truly first rate standards for academic content. That’s the conclusion of a new study that should buoy the spirits of people who champion the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS) here in the US.

The study, by William Schmidt of Michigan State University, offers several powerful findings. Among them:

  • Common Core State Standards are very similar to academic content standards in countries where students beat the pants off ours in math. (Schmidt calls these “A+ standards.) He found a 90 percent overlap in content. He also found that CCSS and those other countries presented math topics in a similar order.
  • Most current state standards in the US are very different from standards in the superstar countries. He found that the overlap for states ranged from 62 to 83 percent.
  • Most current state standards present more content than the A+ standards do. As such, they’re “a mile wide and an inch deep,” stressing quantity over quality of learning.
  • Standards like CCSS can raise student performance. States with standards that most closely resemble CCSS performed better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). (Schmidt looked at 8th grade math.) Yes, this is just a correlation, but it challenges the claim of Common Core opponents that states with strong standards don’t get any bang for their buck on NAEP.
  • Add high expectations on state tests to the mix, and performance might rise even more. States with standards that resemble CCSS and that set a high passing score on their state tests were still more likely to get higher scores on NAEP. Again, we shouldn’t confuse correlation with causation, but the results are very suggestive. The best content standards imaginable will not reach their potential if we do not ask students to show that they have truly mastered them. The fact that so many US states set the bar in math and science so low should give us pause.

Schmidt’s research should help arm the 46 states that have adopted CCSS against the small but growing chorus of voices urging those states to back down on Common Standards. Many Common Core opponents claim that standards don’t matter, or that CCSS are worse than current state standards—or both. Schmidt is giving them a run for their money.

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