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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.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 07:28

American adults have generally come to believe that children in their country are bringing up the rear in international tests of student skills. Now it seems they should take a close look at themselves as well.

A new test from the OECD finds that American adults aged 16 to 65 are merely average in reading and well below average in math when compared with adults in 21 other developed countries. On some level, this finding shouldn’t surprise us. It stands to reason that children with low skills often grow up to be adults with low skills, but that doesn’t rob this study of its sting. It removes the refuge many American adults find in common language about the decline of U.S. schools: namely, the implication that, back when they were in school, education wasn’t as bad.

Yet if the OECD test is any indication, the education most adults received was in fact worse. Young Americans performed 9 percentage points higher than older Americans, which suggests that schools are getting better—albeit far too slowly. (In higher performing countries like Korea, young people outshine their elders by a much larger margin, a sign of much faster improvement in their school systems.)

The OECD test reveals a fundamental challenge for school reformers: When we try to convince the American public that their children are not performing well enough to succeed in a competitive world economy, we’re implicitly asking adults to own up to their own skill deficiencies as well. This problem is all the more acute for employers who say they can’t find the skilled people they need right now.

Of course there are still ways to evade the implications of all the tests that reveal our nation’s skills deficit. According to polls, parents commonly assume that the problem applies to other people’s children. Individual workers can point fingers at the rest of the workforce. Still, deep down many of us may sense that these tests are telling us about our own individual shortcomings. That is a powerful incentive to look away from them.

Yet as the demand for skills rises and youth in other countries pull ahead, we can't afford to look away. Our children are entering a much less forgiving world.

Friday, October 4, 2013 - 08:40

For many who want to defeat Common Core State Standards, high academic expectations are apparently the new black.

The Pioneer Institute just released yet another paper claiming that Common Core sets a low bar in math. The paper’s authors, Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, passionately believe that every American student should have to pass pre-calculus at least to graduate from high school and be ready for admission to a “selective” 4-year college. Legions of Common Core critics whose grasp on mathematics is, shall we say, looser than Migram's or Stotsky's are using their arguments to claim that Common Core is dumbing down math in this country.

So let’s get this straight: Common Core is lowering standards, because it won’t prepare every U.S. student to succeed at Harvard?

Apparently, the fact that the Common Core is much more rigorous than most states' previous standards does little to impress folks at the Pioneer Institute. Common Core assumes that every student will take four years of math, including at least algebra 2. Meanwhile, current graduation requirements in all but 11 states are much lower than that. In fact, some states have been going backwards despite Common Core. Texas recently dropped algebra 2 from its requirements, and Florida quickly followed suit.

So here are some questions for all those Common Core critics who have suddenly conceived a passion for high standards—calculus, even! Where were you during all those years when so many states embraced vague or squishy standards? Where were you when most states declared students “proficient” for getting low scores on state tests? Where were you when Texas—which the critics have praised for rejecting Common Core—dramatically rolled back its graduation requirements in math? And where will you be if states abandon Common Core and slide back into mediocrity?  Will you all rally around the goal of algebra 2 for all students, much less pre-calculus or calculus?

Fat chance.

Thursday, October 3, 2013 - 14:59

Today, Change the Equation announced four excellent STEM learning programs that are ready to be taken to scale nationwide. The programs we identified--Girlstart Summer Camp, Project Lead the Way, ST Math, and Ten80 Student Racing Challenge--are already in CTEq’s rigorous STEMworks database of STEM programs that consistently yield positive outcomes.

CTEq invited all programs in its existing STEMworks database to submit additional evidence of their ability to promptly scale nationally. Nineteen applied. Every STEMworks program has already measured up to CTEq's rigorous Design Principles for Effective STEM Philanthrolpy. To be identified as ready to scale, STEMworks programs had to an additional set of demanding criteria adapted from the Social Impact Exchange. The nonprofit education research and evaluation firm WestEd performed all of the reviews.

Our effort is similar to a scaling initiative underway at the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of leading U.S. companies. Both endeavors are working to have an impact on scaling up proven programs. ST Math was recognized as a leader in both CTEq’s and Business Roundtable’s initiatives.

CTEq undertook this scaling initiative to help companies that want to devote a portion of their resources to scale-ready programs identify strong targets for their resources. At the same time, companies can continue to invest in STEMworks programs that might not be as ready to go to broad scale but that can meet companies' more specific priorities.

Learn more about the scalable programs:

  • Girlstart Summer Camp, a week-long STEM experience for girls in the 3rd through 10th grades that increases girls' mastery in STEM subjects by introducing them to fun, real-world STEM activities. Girls who participate become much more interested in STEM and confident in their own ability to pursue STEM.
  • Project Lead The Way, which offers hands-on, project-based STEM programs for elementary, middle, and high schools. PLTW has been proven to boost student academic growth in the STEM disciplines as well as critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • ST Math, a program that uses instructional software to teach math concepts visually through computer games, while developing critical problem-solving and reasoning skills essential for tomorrow’s workforce. Developed by university neuroscientists, ST Math has been shown to double students’ growth rate in math scores.
  • Ten80 Student Racing Challenge, a project-based learning program that challenges middle and high school students in and out of schools to optimize the performance of 1:10 scale radio-controlled cars. Students mirror professional motorsports teams, specializing in projects from creative engineering and green transportation to business and graphic design. Ten80 has been shown to boost student test scores and spark their interest in math and science.
Friday, September 27, 2013 - 07:14

When it comes to choosing a career, it pays to discriminate. That’s a major message emerging from a new study of STEM majors in three states. It seems not all STEM jobs are created equal, at least if we take only their wages into account.

In a study of recent college graduates in three states, Mark Schneider finds that biology and chemistry majors are not paid well, even when compared with (gasp!) sociology majors. This finding prompts him to conclude that “the ‘S’ in STEM Is Overrated.” We think that weighty pronouncement rests on a pretty flimsy foundation, given that he only looked at early career wages in three states. There may still be more to that story than he is able to perceive.

Yet his study brings home an important point: STEM boosters and critics alike tend to treat STEM as something monolithic. Some STEM advocates leave the impression that, if you study anything in STEM, you’ll have their pick of high-paying jobs. Critics, by contrast, often latch on to a few struggling occupations as if they represented the entire STEM workforce. (Chemistry PhD’s have trouble finding jobs! There were lots of unemployed architects in the recession!)

The reality, of course, is that there is variation within STEM. In our own study of the demand for STEM workers during the recession, we found differences from one STEM occupation to the next. To quote our STEM Help Wanted report:

  • Within Computer and Mathematical occupations, for example, there were about 1.4 computer programming job postings for every unemployed computer programmer, but more than four network and computer systems administration jobs for every unemployed network or computer systems administrator.
  • Within Engineering, job postings outnumbered the unemployed by 1.3 to one in electronic and electrical engineering and by more than three to one in industrial, health and safety engineering. The situation in civil engineering appeared much worse, presumably because money for public works dried up during the recession: Unemployed civil engineers outnumbered civil engineering job postings by almost two to one.

Yet taken as a whole, STEM workers did quite well, even in tough times. There were almost two STEM job postings for every unemployed worker. Outside of STEM, there were about three and a half unemployed workers for every job posting.

If you’re in college, and you want to maximize you earnings potential, don’t assume that all STEM fields are alike. Do some research about specific occupations and make the choice that best suits your ambition.

But if you're still in K-12, and you want to have that full range of choices once you reach college, you would do well to get a very strong grounding in STEM.

Finally, don't forget that STEM careers offer rewards other than money.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 07:56

Critics of testing often argue that good teaching and standardized tests are like oil and water. Good teaching gets young people to think critically, explore new ideas, and love learning, the argument goes, while standardized tests compel them to learn by rote, avoid risk, and dread school. Take heart, critics! It doesn’t have to be that way. Good teaching will be rewarded, even on those dreaded tests.

A new study bears this out. Mathematica, a major policy research outfit, took a careful look at five Expeditionary Learning (EL) schools, where students learn through hands-on, real-world projects. The study’s conclusion? On average, students who remain in those schools for three years learn 10 months more math than similar students in other schools. How did Mathematica measure this result? By tracking student scores on those dreaded standardized tests. Yet EL schools are about the last places on earth that would use “drill and kill” teaching methods to goose their students’ scores.

Of course, a handful of EL schools is a pretty small sample. Still, their example drives home an important point: Even lousy state tests don’t force schools to devote all their time to mindless test prep. Schools that heed their better angels and do the right thing will probably reap rewards even on those infamous bubble exams.

That’s certainly no reason to stick with the terrible tests, but no one should ever use bad tests as scapegoats for bad teaching.

(Hat tip: Inside School Research)

Thursday, September 19, 2013 - 16:25

Yesterday Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to D.C. to lobby for immigration reform.  At the heart of the matter is ensuring that there are enough skilled workers to fill job openings.  This is an issue that has been bubbling beneath the surface (or above it, frankly) for some time.  CTEq member companies, of which Zuckerberg's Facebook is one, know all too well that the STEM skills shortage is very much a real one. 

Often at issue in the debate is whether these skilled immigrants will be taking away jobs from those already living in the U.S.  As Zuckerberg put it, speaking at an event at Atlantic Live yesterday afternoon (video, here), "This isn't a matter of hiring people instead of Americans who are doing this...we'll hire all of them."

CTEq waded into the debate recently, focusing largely on the great STEM skills debate, with CEO Linda Rosen's Huffington Post blog piece, excerpted below and in its entirety here.

Here we go again. Social media sites are buzzing with claims that there is no shortage of U.S. workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Last time this happened, they were responding to a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which has since been soundly refuted. This time, it's an article in IEEE's Spectrum Magazine by Robert Charette, who proclaims that "the STEM crisis is a myth." Like EPI, Charette is simply wrong.

Charette suggests that people who have a STEM background are down on their luck -- unable to find stable jobs, making do with flat wages, or bailing out of STEM entirely. The STEM shortage "myth," he writes, was manufactured by a cabal of special interests who "cherry pick" data to keep themselves in business and depress STEM wages.

Yet Charette does a fair bit of cherry picking himself while missing the big picture. He argues from anecdotes and a handful of studies that support his point but leaves aside the mountain of data that demonstrate a shortage. More important, he unwittingly points to one of the biggest causes of this shortage: Demand for STEM skills has intensified across the entire economy.  Read more.  

Mark Zuckerberg

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - 09:19

Yesterday we went on a virtual road trip with our friends from Alcoa and Time Warner Cable, courtesy of Roadtrip Nation.  We watched inspiring videos from employees at the two companies and live-tweeted the action at #CTEqRoadtrip.  Check out the tweets below and see what transpired (and keep your eyes peeled for more virutal viewing parties in the future).

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 - 14:01

The New York Times had a fantastic and thorough special look at STEM education this week. All the articles are worth a read, though we recognize that's a tall order the day after Labor Day. A few key (and often familiar) takeaways are below: 


Again, if you've got some time, we highly encourage you to check out the articles. Together, while they highlight new areas of inquiry and potential for policy directions, they also show the progress that many programs and states have made in creating meaningful, contextual STEM education for a whole new generation of kids. 
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 11:48

D.C. in August moves a little slower than usual on the news front, but we've got your fast hits for the week. 

Calculator Use on Exams to Shift With Common Core, EdWeek, August 20

Calculators have long held a contentious point in math testing. While some states allow older students to use calculators to complete standardized tests, others ban them at all ages. Recently, the two testing consortia released their tentative policies for the use of calculators on the assessments. PARCC's policy, slightly further along than Smarter Balanced's, allows for the use of calculators above sixth grade at certain points during the tests. EdWeek looks at the context and history of calculator use, and what the new policies might mean for calculator use in the younger grades. 

U.S. Lags in business funding of academic research, Washington Business Journal, August 26

A new study from Times Higher Education reports that the U.S. ranks thirteenth in terms of business funding academic research and development. The leader? South Korea, where businesses invest $97,900 per scholar. U.S. businesses pay only $25,800 per academic researcher. This has the potential to weaken economic growth, which would create a stronger economy. 

Computer Learning + Math = Fun and Learning in Schools, The Seattle Times, August 21

We've blogged before about the increasingly prevalence of games in teaching and testing students, and the Seattle Times takes a deep dive into a University of Washington research team taking on the challenge of creating games that assess student learning in their local communities. 

Monday, August 26, 2013 - 11:32

Last week, Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional association for educators, released the results of its annual PDK/Gallup survey, which tracks attitudes toward public schools. This year, topics ranged from school safety post-Newtown to homeschooling. For STEM education, though, the most interesting conclusions were in the public's view of the Common Core State Standards. 

The CCSS is the lynchpin of efforts to reform math teaching in the U.S. right now. While the standards do, by and large, provide a higher bar than many students have previously, many states are beginning to face challenges in implementing the standards. In a few states, like New York, test scores have dropped, disgruntling the public. Other states, wary of a deeper financial investments in times of strapped state budgets, are backing away from commitments to implement new tests aligned to the standards and comparable from state-to-state. 

Given these various stressors, it's crucial that public support and understanding of the standards is high as states and schools attempt to move the needle for students. Unfortunately, the PDK/Gallup poll shows limited knowledge of the standards, and a limited understanding of what they aim to do. 

Of all Americans, only 38 percent had heard of the Common Core State Standards; that number is about 45 percent among Americans with children in public schools. Of that third who said they had heard of the Core, a majority self-identified as "somewhat knowledgeable" about the standards. But there appears to be some misinformation -- many also believed that the standards were simply a blend of current standards, that the federal government was insisting on the standards, and that there is a plan in place to expand core standards in all academic areas. That widespread misinformation undermines conclusions about the potential impact of the Common Core, which 41 percent said could make the U.S. more competitive globally. 

What's a policymaker to do? It's clear that we've got to put more effort into communicating what the standards are and how it affects students. If the first information a parent receives about the Common Core comes in the form of a lower standardized-test score in summer 2014, there is a problem. 

But while the data is potentially worrisome, it also presents an opportunity. There is a lack of education that can be rectified. Teachers, schools, and business leaders can go on the offensive and help parents and community members realize the benefits of the Core, and recognize why states and schools need to commit to giving the standards a chance. It's time to step up and fill that void. 

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