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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.

Monday, April 16, 2012 - 07:37

Here’s one of the biggest lessons we can draw from years of school reform. It’s not what the reform is that matters most. It’s what you do with it. All too many veteran school staff have seen waves of reform wash over them and produce so little change in the end.

Take, for example, the reform of “flipping” classrooms. It’s a very compelling idea: Let students get their lectures at home via videos, textbooks or other means, but spend valuable class time working with them one-on-one with their homework. Yet there’s a lot more to it than that. If done well, the reform will require many teachers to transform what they do in the classroom.

For an example of what the flipped classroom can look like, check out Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post interview with Jonathan Bergmann, a teacher who has become an evangelist for the reform. First, he and a colleague flipped their classrooms. Then they realized that, to give their students one-on-one attention in the classroom, they should allow each student to proceed at his or her pace. That required them to adopt a model where students must show they have mastered one unit before moving forward. Students who don't do well on one test have to try again later—after more work with the material, and with a different test. 

So what would a "flipped" classroom look like that failed to fulfill the idea's promise? It may reduce the amount of rote lecture in the classroom, but it could also miss the opportunity for one-on-one teaching. Class-time could become little more than time for "review," with students learning in lock step. Different structure, similar results.

Bergmann's vision goes far beyond structure. It requires a lot more support for teachers. It requires great materials--videos, other kinds of multimedia or text--students can watch at home. It requires measures to ensure that students are actually watching those videos or reading those texts. And it requires a lot more work as teachers move from the "lesson plan" model to the kinds of teaching that adapt to students' individual, and very diverse, needs. Like all school reforms, the "flipped" classroom entails much more than meets the eye.

This is by no means a criticism of the flipped classroom, which could be very powerful, indeed. Yet it is a reminder that, like many of the best reform ideas, it could founder on half-hearted implementation. Our shores are littered with the wrecks of great ideas.

So when we pursue these or other visions of reform (Common Core, anyone?) we have to go whole hog.

Thursday, April 12, 2012 - 07:31

Pick a school, any school in the country. How is it performing? We can look at things like graduation rates and state test scores, but it can still be maddeningly hard to tell. A small but growing—and ideologically diverse—number of experts has started calling for something that goes far beyond the numbers: regular inspections of schools. Would inspections shed more light into the black box?

Let’s look at some of the data we do have. Our ability to calculate 4-year grad rates has gotten much better, but some argue that 5- or even 6-year rates would tell a fuller story about schools that serve many recent immigrants, for example. As for state tests, our own research (and that of others) has revealed that many states set the bar too low for things like student proficiency rates to mean as much as they should. What’s more, the recent run of cheating scandals has made people suspicious of schools that boast big increases in scores.

There are other kinds of data that can help fill out the picture. For example, the time may come when we can see how well high schools prepare students for college by tracking how many of their graduates persist and earn degrees. If the new common tests that are emerging from the Common Core State Standards fulfill their promise to be much better than the current crop of state tests, we might be able to put more stock in test scores. (See the Data Quality Campaign for other data innovations that might be in our future.)

Yet the idea of inspections has been gaining some traction recently. A couple of years ago, a group calling for a “Broader, Bolder Approach” to schooling proposed regular inspections. Just a few months ago, the influential DC think tank Education Sector echoed the idea in a paper that got broad attention. Just yesterday, education reformer Mike Petrilli made his case for inspections in similar terms. The "Broader, Bolder" group, Ed Sector, and Petrilli's Fordham Foundation are hardly peas in a pod. The fact that all three landed on inspections might point to the idea's broadening appeal.

Now don't expect your local inspectorate to come knocking any time soon. Even the idea's supporters acknowledge that it could be awfully expensive at a time when schools have been slashing budgets. Then there's the question of who will inspect the inspectors to ensure that they have the background and skills they need and are doing a good job? And skeptics like Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Foundation worry that schools would simply apply some spit and polish, sweep dust bunnies under rugs, and put on a good show for the inspectors.

Still, the desire to know more than we do about schools can be a very good thing--especially if what we learn helps schools improve the work they do. New data are coming on line, and so are new tests. Inspectorates may be a heavy lift, but they're part of a vital conversation about how better data can help us improve our schools.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 - 07:12

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative might seem like pretty obscure stuff to many Americans, even though the standards have the potential to make a big difference in how we teach most children in the country. CTEq member ExxonMobil is doing its part to lift CCSS out of obscurity.

Here’s the text of an ad they aired during the Masters Golf Tournament:

Forty-five states have joined together to ensure consistent academic standards across America. These internationally-recognized benchmarks are unlocking a better way to prepare our children for college and their careers. Because when our kids do better, America does better. Let’s reach higher. Let’s invest in our teachers and inspire our students. Let’s solve this.

The wonks at DC think tank Education Sector are impressed, and with good reason. “Building public awareness and support of the Common Core is a huge lift for states,” writes Mary Hyslop. The more help they can get, the better.

Indeed, CCSS standards might face some stiff headwinds if they take full effect. They aim higher than many current state standards do. If states do a good job of putting them into practice, the share of students those states deem “proficient” may well plummet. As we’ve noted elsewhere, that might spark some outrage, so states will have to stand strong.

Hyslop quotes CCSS supporter Mike Cohen, who sees early outreach as essential to avoiding any blowback. When Tennessee raised the bar on it 8th grade math test, he writes, proficiency dropped from 90 to 26 percent, which could have soured the public on the state’s reforms. Yet because Tennessee had undertaken “two years of intense public outreach, the state experienced little backlash.”

So it’s encouraging to see a company like ExxonMobil put Common Core standards on the map. Obscure though they may seem to most Americans, CCSS will touch many lives. The more we can do to educate the public now, the better.

Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 22:12

Why is it acceptable in this country to say, "I'm bad at math"? Do you know many people who would admit to being semi-literate? For Jonathan Wai at Duke, the question is central to school reform. "The first step we need to take as a society," he writes, "is to make it socially unacceptable to be bad at math just like it's socially unacceptable to be bad at reading." (It's only fair to note that we don't exactly knock it out of the park on reading, either--but Wai still has a point.)

Wai's remarks remind me of a little meditation we posted about a year and a half ago. It's worth re-posting here:

 

Imagine you're at a nice restaurant with some friends. Not long after the waiter hands out the menus, your neighbor gives his menu to you. "Could you read this to me?" he asks. "I can’t read very well."

You would probably be shocked if your friend were older than, say, ten. People aren't in the habit of admitting illiteracy. So why is it any less shocking when, at the end of the meal, so many of the diners fall all over themselves to say they're "too bad at math" to figure out the tip? (We've all seen it happen.)

The fact is that our society is a whole lot more accepting of mathematical illiteracy than it is of the other kind. In a recent Change the Equation poll, three in ten Americans said they were bad at math. Among 18 to 24 year olds, that ratio rose to almost four in ten. More than half of Americans aged 18 to 34 admitted that they often say they can’t do math. Nearly a third said they would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem. That's a big problem for our country.

It's a problem Change the Equation hopes to confront head on. A truly literate nation must do more than just read. We must compute, investigate and innovate. We should be curious about how things work, driven to understand the causes of our biggest challenges, and inspired by the promise of science and technology to address those challenges. Our future depends on it.

So many of our most daunting problems are at base science problems, technology problems, engineering problems and--yes--math problems. We face threats to national security, threats to the natural world, and daunting economic challenges. We face stiff international competition for good jobs that demand a background in science, technology, education and math (STEM). And in our daily lives we face ever tougher choices about our health care, our finances, our mortgages, even whom to vote for. It just won't do to say we're bad at math or science, or that we don't understand technology.

We have science, technology, engineering and math to thank for much of the prosperity we've enjoyed for the past half century or more. And these fields can fuel our prosperity and security through the rest of this century.

But first we have to excite our young people about STEM, fire their imaginations with all they could accomplish if they have a strong foundation in the STEM fields. Many of Change the Equation's corporate members are at the cutting edge of revolutionary, transformative work in science, technology, engineering and math. Many have made it their goal to show U.S. students just how vital, relevant, fascinating, and life-changing this work can be.

Young people should know that, if they’re bad at math, then they're missing out.

The stakes are very high. Not long before he died in 1996, Carl Sagan offered a pessimistic view of where our nation stands in science and technology. "We've arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology," he said. "We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster."

So rather than proclaiming our ignorance of the world we live in, it’s time to embrace and master the tools that will help all Americans understand and improve that world.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 07:29

The US Department of Defense (DoD) launched a contest on Monday for mobile apps that can help high schoolers understand science. The mobile app market is booming, and more people are seeing the potential for apps to promote learning anytime and anywhere. Let’s hope the DoD’s effort, and others like it, fuel an industry of apps for learning.

The DoD's contest takes aim at common misconceptions that hinder young (and, frankly, not so young) people's grasp of science. For example:

  • The temperature of an object drops when it freezes.
  • Dew formed on the outside of glass comes from the inside of the glass.
  • When things dissolve they “disappear.”

The DoD is looking for apps "that foster problem-solving, discovery, and exploratory learning." Are you up to the challenge? If so, you have to submit your app before the June 4th deadline.

via Information Week.

Sunday, April 1, 2012 - 22:33

The road to common academic standards is still full of promise and peril. One big concern: Teachers, schools and districts aren't all ready to teach to the new standards, and states aren't all ready to help them.

Kathleen Porter-Magee argues that teachers, schools and school districts are therefore ripe for exploitation by peddlers of curriculum that claim to be aligned to common standards. Magee worries that teachers are too confident to be wary of such claims, citing a new survey where 73 percent of teachers said they are prepared to teach to the new standards.

Where she sees confidence, I see uncertainty. Fifty-one percent of teachers said they were "somewhat [as opposed to 'very'] prepared," and we all know that "somewhat" comes in many different shades. Add to that the 27 percent who feel "somewhat or very unprepared," and we have a lot of teachers who know they'll need help. (Those who think they have the common standards thing handled may be in for a big shock.)

Still, Magee's larger point hits home. Districts, schools and teachers are going to need a lot of help, and if states don't fill the need, others will surely step into the breach. Some will be good, but others will be bad and ugly.

It doesn't take much to write "aligned with Common Core" on PR materials. Unfortunately, it takes a whole heck of a lot to assess the truth behind that slogan.

Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 07:16

How’s this for far-fetched? In 2010, about 42 percent of fourth-graders at a Missouri elementary school passed the state’s math test. When the same class of students took the fifth grade math test the following year, only four percent passed. Why the abrupt drop? According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the fourth grade scores were probably a mirage, one small instance of “the biggest cheating scandal in American history.” If true, these charges of cheating by school staff have sobering implications for the future of school reform.

The AJC used statistical analysis to ferret out the most likely cases of cheating. The findings? “Overall, 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000. For 33 of those districts, the odds were worse than one in a million.”

Cheating scandals have been much in the news lately. They roiled Atlanta schools two years ago and are making headlines in Washington, DC and New York City, among other places. They have been fodder for both champions and skeptics of current accountability reforms. For the champions, they reveal the rotten core of the current system. For the skeptics, they reveal the rotten core of test-based accountability.

Neither group is right. The vast majority of school staff and teachers do not cheat. When they do, though, it hardly seems fair to place most of the blame on the tests.

Yet that hardly seems to matter. The cheating scandals merely amplify the distrust that's already far too pervasive--of teachers, administrators, reformers, tests, you name it.

They may also take down innocent bystanders. Take, for example, the teachers who are measured in part on their students' academic growth. If they get a crop of students whose results on the prior year's tests were inflated through cheating, even the best teachers will seem like failures. (See, for example, this story in The Washington Post.)

So what's to be done? The AJC councils vigilance. Districts that monitor things like the numbers of erasures on tests or unlikely swings in student test scores can help nip scandals in the bud. The AJC piece notes that, "for years, Los Angeles’ scores were among the least suspicious for big-city districts. But when California stopped conducting routine erasure analysis in 2008 for budget reasons, the number of improbable score changes in L.A. climbed steeply."

Denial is certainly not the answer. If they gain momentum, cheating scandals will make thoughtful and constructive conversations about school reform all but impossible.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 07:38

If your children are in the California schools, take note. We’ve learned in recent months that they probably won’t spend much time learning science in elementary school, and they might not have to take much science in high school. Now a new study from WestEd and the Lawrence Hall of Science shows that their middle school experience might be a bit better, but still far from ideal.

The survey did find some moderately good news. In almost all the districts they surveyed, “more than three quarters of students in grades 6-8 are enrolled in science courses.” More than two out of three teachers said they had access to the internet and equipment “such as a sink and measuring tools.” About three in four said they had “majored in a science-related field or having obtained a single-subject credential for teaching science.”

All good news is of course relative. You’d think, for example, that every student in grades 6 through 8 would be taking science, but maybe beggars can’t be choosers. It's also worth noting that a sink and measurement tools (like beakers) aren’t necessarily state of the art science equipment, even for middle schools. And it’s troubling that one in four middle school science teachers in California has “neither a background nor a single-subject credential in science.” The numbers are worse in schools that serve mostly low-income students.

Perhaps most startling is the finding that that only about 14 percent of teachers “use a pattern of classroom practices that supports regular engagement in the practices of science.” In other words, fewer than one in five regularly have their students “work in groups; do hands‐on or lab science activities or investigations; design or implement their own investigation; participate in fieldwork; record, represent, or analyze data; write reflections; and present to the class.” That is bad news for California students.

Science, it seems, is getting short shrift in California’s elementary, middle and high schools. The state can ill afford to stay on this course. Its fourth and eighth grade scores in science are among the nation’s lowest. States often reap what they sow.

Friday, March 23, 2012 - 07:03

Are teachers of math biased against girls? Certainly not on purpose. Yet new research from the University of Texas suggests that many succumb to the stereotype that girls are worse than boys at math. This research is the latest in a long line of studies that reveal just how pervasive that stereotype is.

The UT researchers examined data on 15,000 high school students and found that, “even with the same grades and the same test scores, the teachers are still ranking the girls as less good at math than the boys.” Prior studies have found this pattern in the earlier grades. One especially troubling study recently found that girls believe math is for boys as early as second grade. The new research from UT suggests that these trends persist through high school, a time when many students begin to consider their career choices. Our own research at CTEq finds that this bias survives well into adulthood.

There is no grain of truth in the stereotype about girls and math, but it can be awfully hard to shake such corrosive misconceptions when they have a very strong hold.

Yet we have to, because the stakes could hardly be higher. Early biases, however subtle, can have big consequences later on. Women are far less likely than men to go into areas like computer science, physics and engineering. At a time when we need all hands on deck, that's a lot of talent to squander.

Thursday, March 22, 2012 - 13:23

On occasion, CTEq welcomes guest blogs about key issues or engaging ideas that may be of interest to our audience. Dr. Mitzi Montoya is vice provost and dean of the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University. 

The future of STEM education can be summed up in one simple idea:

If you want to equip students to tackle complex, multidisciplinary challenges in a real-world environmentafter they graduate, then you need to teach them how to tackle complex, multidisciplinary challenges in a real-world environment before they graduate.

At the College of Technology and Innovation, we base as much of our curriculum as possible on projects.  Students in our three major program areas – engineering, applied science and management – start with simpler projects that fit within the confines of a single class, and then advance over four years to more complex tasks that require larger teams and longer time periods.

Our senior iProjects bring students, faculty, and industry or government sponsors together to find innovative solutions to real-world problems.  Each project involves four to eight students working together in an interdisciplinary team.  The partner commits to funding the project for materials, use of labs and equipment and other expenses, and also provides a project liaison, who works with the student team to develop detailed project requirements, negotiate changes, and present interim and final results.  Partners receive full access to all project outcomes and retain all intellectual property.

Among this year’s iProjects, the one everyone seems most excited about is the “dog waste digester,” sponsored by the town of Gilbert, AZ.  Located near Phoenix, Gilbert is home to the very popular “Cosmo” dog park, which gets more than 600,000 visitors each year. 

That’s a lot of dog poop.

Currently, that waste is taken to a local landfill, and it costs the city about $9,000 each year to dispose of it.  The digester our students are building will use solar power to convert the waste to methane gas, which would then be harnessed to power a light that will draw dog owners’ attention to the proper disposal area.  This iProject includes students and faculty from biology, engineering and psychology.

In a story last summer in the Arizona Republic, Assistant Town Manager Tami Ryall said town officials were “really excited at the opportunity to have the students design it.”

Faculty advisor Kiril D. Hristovski described the way the project fits in with the College’s mission: “In the real world, you work as a team and they should be able to function as a team.”

The iProjects are an exciting new model for higher education.  Students apply newly acquired knowledge, giving them tremendous workplace experience in a university environment.  Industry partners retain all intellectual property, access student creativity and expertise, and can assess potential intern and workforce candidates.  The College is able to attract and retain students of the highest potential because of the exemplary interdisciplinary team-based learning experience that these projects provide.

For more information, please check out our webpage: technology.asu.edu/iprojects.

 

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