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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.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 - 11:03

The forty plus states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have committed to an agenda to prepare all students for success after graduation whether in college or careers.  For most of them, the CCSS represent a significant boost from their previous standards.  Consequently, school districts in these states are busy re-examining curriculum, designing lesson plans, field-testing new assessments, adjusting school schedules and providing professional development to educators to help them make the shift to deeper learning experiences for their students aligned to the new, higher standards. 

I should add that this is happening on an incredibly tight deadline: most states are on schedule to begin testing students on the CCSS in 2014-15. So state and local school leaders have a very full plate right now. But there is one critical step that should not get lost in the hustle. Common core states need graduation requirements that reflect the new college and career-ready demands. If there’s a mismatch, students cannot be assured their diploma will carry them into postsecondary education or good jobs.

My colleagues and I at NSBA’s Center for Public Education and Change the Equation recently looked at current state high school graduation requirements in math in Common Core states to see how well they measure up to the math CCSS. As recommended by the CCSS authors, this would mean math in each year of high school and include Algebra II or courses with similar content.  We found 11 states where graduation aligns with the new demands, and 13 states that are partially aligned. This leaves 22 states that have adopted the college-career ready standards but have not yet defined a standard diploma that will meet them.

Clearly, there is a lot states need to consider before changing graduation requirements, especially for students who are in middle and high school now and may lack the math foundation for success in higher level courses they were not necessarily expected to take.  At the same time, schools still have a responsibility to prepare their current graduates for life after high school.  Fortunately, school districts don’t need to wait for the state. Nothing precludes them from defining graduation requirements beyond those the state has set. 

Indeed, launching a community conversation about the diploma they award could present a good opportunity for engaging parents, students, local businesses and civic leaders in Common Core implementation.  While non-educators may not feel they have much to contribute to curriculum design and professional development plans, the entire community is nonetheless invested in preparing young people for adult life and thus will have a lot to say about what that should mean.

Business leaders can play a particularly important role by making the case to the public why they need better prepared graduates to fill their jobs and contribute to a vibrant local economy.  They can also assist through meaningful partnerships with public schools by sharing resources, serving as mentors to teachers and students, and even running for school board.  

To be sure, this is a heavy lift.  Courses will need to be both higher level and look different from traditional math through the emphasis on application alongside key math concepts. Many students will need extra help to earn a Common Core aligned diploma. The support of the community and businesses will provide the best assurance this critical next step will land on solid ground.

Patte Barth is Director of the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association.

Check out our guest post by Claus von Zastrow over at the Center for Public Education's blog, The Edifier.

* Want to weigh in on Out of Sync? Join experts from both organizations for a Twitter chat today at 1:00 Eastern at @ChangeEquation and @NSBAComm. Follow along using the hashtag #CCSSGradReq.

Friday, June 14, 2013 - 12:35

Today in 1864, Alois Alzheimer, who studied and lent his name to the most common form of dementia, was born. 

A psychiatrist and neuropathologist by training, Alzheimer was born in Bavaria and studied at several German universities before eventually graduating from Wurzberg University. A colleague of Emil Kraepelin, one of the fathers of modern psychiatry, he worked at an asylum for women suffering from mental disorders. There he met Auguste Deter who, while in middle age, was suffering from delusions and confusion without an apparent cause. He became fascinated and, when she died five years later, he had her brain brought to his new lab. There, he and a few colleagues found that her cerebral cortex was thinner than normal, and that senile plaque , previously seen only in extremely elderly patients, as well as fibrous tangles, were found in her brain. This became the basis for his most famous paper, on "pre-senile dementia." After his death at age 51, the disease was subsequently named for him.

Today there are approximately 26.6 million people suffering from Alzheimer's nationwide. From a scientific-research perspective, Alzheimer's is still a bit of a black box -- for instance, the cause is still largely unknown and a definitive diagnosis is still not possible until after death, when doctors perform the same check for plaques and tangles that Alzheimer did 110 years ago. Medications and treatments still focus on alleviating symptoms, rather than curing causes. In 2013, treatment of the disease will cost the nation $203 billion to cover health care and hospice. Family members of those suffering from Alzheimer's will provide 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care to their friends and relatives, valued at $216 billion. The U.S. also spends an addition $480 million on research of the disease. 



Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 14:28

If they're not done already, millions of students are set to start singing some Alice Cooper in the next few weeks. But while students may be dreaming of beaches, swimming pools, and Disney Channel marathons, parents would be wise to focus some time and attention on math skills.

As a teacher might tell younger students, the brain, like a muscle, gets weaker with disuse. When summer is handed over to camps, family vacation, and relaxation, kids lose vital skills and knowledge across the board. Their next teacher then has to spend the first several months of school re-teaching concepts students had oncemastered. It's of particular concern for low-income students, who don't have the same access to summer reading materials or, often, the support to help and support them select appropriately challenging material. In fact, the summer slide could account for as much as two-thirds of the reading performance gap between low-income students and their peers

But the math summer slide is much less affected by income than the reading summer-learning loss. While its egalitarian nature initially may seem like a positive attribute, it's more aptly described as the floor falling out from under everyone. Across all subjects, math skills slip the farthest overall -- students typically lose 2.6 months of math learning over the summer. Given that reading gets a boost from summer trips to the library, school-provided summer reading lists, and parents reading to younger children, this is not unsurprising.

But there are plenty of ways that students can avoid the summer slide. A few ideas are summarized below:

  • Summer programming. Without schedules less tied to bells and standardized tests, summer is great time to explore new aspects of STEM in hands-on or immersive ways. Camps like Girlstart or Build IT -- both in the STEMWorks database -- are fun, intensive ways for students to reinforce concepts learned in school while being introduced to skills like coding. Programs like SMASH provide enrichment for students to deepen skills taught in schools. Beyond STEM-specific camps, school-based and more general day-long programming often offer STEM modules or STEM units that can pique students' interests while reinforcing skills. Signing students up for more academic programming, alongside the more fun modules, can help them retain valuable skills.
  • Family vacation. While trips to the beach or camping are relaxing and fun, they are also prime opportunities to explore and learn. Most major cities have at least one STEM-centric museum (check out the new Math Museum if you're in NYC), and a trip back to nature can be a prime opportunity to learn the biology of a new ecosystem. Check with locals and hotel management to see what organized opportunities there are for your family to take advantage of. 
  • Additional Resources. While practice worksheets will be too dull to hold a child's attention, what about that math-centric app? Perfect for road trips, plenty of educational apps out there help students refresh vital math and science skills. Make sure to check out the app or game first to ensure it's meeting your child where she or he is at, but online learning tools can be a valuable, interactive way to keep practicing math and science skills so that, come fall, they're ready to dig down for the next school year. 
This list certainly isn't comprehensive. Let us know your favorite ways of adding rigor and ensuring that students don't fall down the summer slide in the comments! 
Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 12:26

We are happy today to announce that, in partnership with the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education, we took a deep dive how states' graduation requirements line up with Common Core, which 45 states have signed on to adopting. The results of our study show that we still have far to go in deeply integrating Common Core standards into high schools nationwide. Some of our findings include:

  • Only 11 Common Core states have fully aligned graduation requirements and the Common Core. That is fewer than one-quarter of the Common Core states.
  • 13 states have graduation requirements that are partially aligned to Common Core, leaving 22 states whose graduation requirements do not correspond to the Common Core. 
  • While one would expect the trend to be that states are making graduation requirements more rigorous, that is actually the opposite of the trend we are seeing. States like Michigan, Florida, and Texas (which is not part of the Common Core) have recently started rolling back graduation requirements. 
We're currently in an important moment -- we need to put our money where our mouths are when it comes to defining what college- and career-ready standards mean, and how we can use Common Core to strengthen the education of thousands of students. This report is intended to be a first step in allowing states to see where they are and what they may need to do next. We're proud to share it. Check it out, and let us know what you think. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 - 08:51

Arne Duncan Unveils High School Grant Program Details, Ed Week, June 7

The details of the Obama Administration's high-school redesign initiative have been under wraps for the last several months, but Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced several details last week in New York. The grants, which are worth a total of $300 million, will help high schools remake themselves to focus more on STEM skills and careers. Applicants should include project-based learning, mentorships, career counseling, and maximized learning time. One school already cited as a model? Pathways to Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), developed by CTEq member company IBM.  

The Hidden STEM Economy, Brookings Institute, June 10 

Take a look at this great Brookings report on how STEM plays a much larger role in the economy than many think -- in fact, one in five jobs can count as STEM jobs. In most larger metro areas, the share is closer to one in four. It makes a strong, clear case for how pervasive STEM is, and how many jobs that aren't normally considered STEM because they don't require bachelor's degrees still make an important contribution to the STEM economy. 

How Kids' Television INspires a Lifelong Love of Science, Smithsonian, June 6

Those of a certain age are used to the "you'll rot your eyes out/you'll turn your brain to mush" laments about watching too much TV. But as Lisa Guernsey points out, the trend in children's TV these days is to give you children an introduction to STEM in creative and engaging ways. While the National Association for the Education of Young Children points out that children should still be observing and encountering science in their own environment, research is showing that preschooler-geared science shows like PBS's Sid the Science Kid may benefit both children, who learn science, and adult caretakers, who learn how to talk to students about science.  

Will Florida Adopt the Next Gen Science StandardsEd Week, June 5

Rhode Island adopted the standards late last month, now Florida -- where Indiana Commissioner Tony Bennett now works  -- is poised to become the second state to adopt the newer, rigorous standards. 

Does Math Exist?, The Atlantic, June 7

Math is such a given in everyday life, but it's actually a pretty legitimate question: Outside of human conception, does math have an objective existence? While the subjects of fields like biology and chemistry undeniably have objects and matter to study and analyze. In this video from PBS's Mike Rugnetta takes a fun look at the basics of the debate around math's existence and how mathematicians choose to explain the existence and use of mathematics to model and explain the universe. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013 - 16:56

As a teacher, there's really no better feeling than watching a kid get that a-ha moment. As a kindergarten and second-grade teacher, I was lucky to teach students at the age when those a-ha moments happened regularly, and I can tell you -- they were always the highlights of my day. 

But the a-ha moments came more easily and often in math. In the moment, I didn't find this too surprising. I liked teaching math more. My preference was simple: Clearer data allowed me to feel more confident in math, and hands-on lessons with manipulatives, food, and dance kept all of us more entertained. But my preference for math surprised my friends -- and, I have to admit, myself.

But a recent article in the New York Times has me reconsidering why my students took to math much more quickly, as well as why, as a new teacher, I gravitated toward math. The article makes several points reinforced by my experiences in the classroom: 

  • Through feedback from exams and daily work, a teacher typically knows sooner that a student is having difficulty in math than in reading, and is able to understand the challenge more precisely, because:
  • math is more universal than reading, which requires cultural literacy, background knowledge, and language familiarity -- and deficits of all three put students from low-income background behind their more affluent peers. However:
  • there is also less variance in math skills when children enter school, because there is less emphasis on early acquisition of math skills at home. Children who are read to and interact with adults regularly come into school with a much stronger grasp of early print and vocabulary skills, which are an essential part of learning to read. However, relatively few parents at any income level introduce math skills with the same fidelity, narrowing an opportunity gap.  

Simply put, the conditions surrounding education often make it more difficult for teachers to teach reading. And that's a problem for math and science, too. 

Strong reading comprehension is critical for STEM skills. NextGen and Common Core State Standards in mathematics put a heavy emphasis on abstract thought, which, particularly for younger students, is promoted through reading skills. Understanding, for instance, that a fiction story is make-believe, promotes abstract thought, and so it's imperative that students gain those logic skills and conceptual understandings in the early years. Secondary instruction relies heavily on the ability to closely read informational texts, like scientific journal articles, as well as the ability to acquire vocabulary by deconstructing word prefixes and suffixes (knowing that toxi- means poisonous, for example, is always good to know). Increasingly, rigorous math and science examinations require students to read passages, break down information, and articulate their responses. PISA and NAEP tests, for instance, aren't just asking to solve equations. And in the working world, engineers, software developers, and programmers need to be able to read, write, and understand highly technical documents. 

ELA skills and math skills can and do work together, and struggles in either bleed over. Raising test scores in one is only half the battle.  It's important that we focus on a balanced approach, giving students ample opportunities to succeed in both to provide a strong educational foundation -- and then students will be able to make their own decision as to which pathways suit them best as adults. Without strong reading comprehension skills, or exposure to rigorous math instruction, students' choices are inevitably limited. But with both, students can and will go far. 



Tuesday, June 4, 2013 - 13:25

If it's Tuesday, it must be news-day. Here's your weekly roundup of STEM in the news. 

Why the National STEM Education Fund Is So Important, Huffington Post, May 28, 2013

Part of the immigration reform bill is a fund for STEM education, created by a fee on H1-B visas -- similar to the SKILLS Act, passed in the House last year. The money raised from the fee will go toward strenghtening STEM ed, in the hopes that more students pursue high-need STEM careers. Maria Cardona lays out the rationale for adopting this measure nicely. 

Girls are being left out of New York City schools' high-tech revolution, New York Daily News, June 3, 2013

New York City, home of over 1 million public-school students, faces the same gender gap that all schools across the country face. The Daily News takes a look at some of the advocacy efforts under way in the city to reach the more than half-million female students. 

More High School Students Choosing STEM Courses, Ed Week, May 23, 2013

Another interesting finding from the 2013 Condition of Education Report, more students are taking math and science courses when compared to 20 years ago. In 1990, for instance, only 7 percent of students took calculus, whereas now 16 percent of students do. The all-important Algebra 2 saw the number of students taking the course rise from 54 percent to 76 percent in the same time frame. While the report also showed that many students' coursework did not always accurately reflect the course titles, the general trend is a positive one. 

The Future of the Space Suit, May 30, 2013

While spacesuits have been around for decades, designers are constantly looking for ways to improve the suits -- making them safer and more useful to scientists and astronauts. The last several decades have added jetpacks, and the next round? May well involve gyroscopes and Space segways. Pretty cool.  

Friday, May 31, 2013 - 09:59

Last night, when 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee winner Arvind Mahankali was asked what he was going to do next, he replied that he'd probably be spending his summer studying physics.

Mahankali, who won on the Germanic-Yiddish word 'knaidel,' elicited laughs with his response, but the 13-year-old would be in good company: According to NPR, several past winners have gone into STEM fields. More than a half-dozen in the past two decades have gone onto careers as physicians. 

What's the link between spelling words like 'euonym' and excelling in math and science (the speller in that video, Rebecca Sealfon, is now studying computer science at Columbia)? For one, spelling at this level is less about rote memorization and more about deep understanding of the logic of language. More than one speller was tripped up by weak knowledge of 'schwa' (middle vowel) sounds. Arvind came in third the last two years, tripped up by Germanic root words. Instead of going straight through the dictionary, top spellers study the roots of various languages -- Latin, French, Greek -- to understand how exactly the words come together. Math is underpinned by a similar focus on deriving meaning from unseen, elegant, logical relationships.

Second, training for a spelling bee is hard. Amber Born, an aspiring comedy writer who charmed the audience last night, admitted that she hadn't watched a lot of TV the past year. It requires hours of focus -- something that comes in handy when working in a lab.

And finally, there's also the perseverance factor. Arvind, Amber, and second-place finisher Pranav -- another crowd favorite -- have all been multiple times: Arvind and Amber were at their fourth rodeo; Pranav, his third. They've all failed, many times, in the past, but have kept going. That kind of attitude is essential to success in science and math.

So congrats, Arvind. We've got our eyes on you. 


Thursday, May 30, 2013 - 12:12

In the wake of the Economic Policy Institute report alleging that the STEM worker shortage is a myth, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has produced a new look at the unemployment statistics, major by major. 

The report is mostly an update of earlier research. After all, we've known for a while that college grads fare better than high school grads, and that in general, STEM majors face lower unemployment and receive higher salaries than their friends in the liberal arts and social sciences overall. We've even known for a while that the toughness of the initial job market depends on your major. 

But in light of the EPI report, which focused preponderantly on IT as a representative of all STEM degrees, it's worth taking a look at this data, to see the differences between different STEM majors. And truthfully, information systems isn't doing that hot. In fact, it's the major that shows the highest rate of unemployment.

Why -- after all, isn't a STEM major the magic pill to job security and economic prosperity? 

First, the affects of the recession cannot be overstated: employment in all sectors, for all levels of experience, suffered in the last several years. This recession still reverberates throughout the economy, affecting employment numbers and making it difficult for new grads to get the first job, when more-experienced, but unemployed, workers are competing for the same jobs.

But the truth is -- as has been said before -- not all STEM majors are considered equal. Some, like software development, build skills that employers can't get enough of right now. Others, like engineering, teach direct skills that are appealing in a variety of professions. But others, like information systems, are vulnerable to broader trends like outsourcing.

The skills and knowledge taught in an IS program don't translate to engineering -- or vice versa. While a freshly minted humanities graduate might be able to show that a political science degree is just as valuable as an English degree when it comes to teaching writing skills, the skills in STEM aren't nearly as malleable. They all, by and large, have a foundation in logic, critical thinking, and problem solving, but the very skills that make most STEM degrees so in-demand -- their high level of specialized knowledge -- also make it more difficult for STEM workers to slide from one STEM-centric field to another. STEM skills and workers aren't widget employees. Unfortunately, that means that hiring in information right now (and potentially for the next several years) is much slower than hiring for those with the skills to write new programs and design software applications.  

When the data is scrutinized, though, it's clear that STEM is still a strong career path. Unemployment among those with experience and advanced education is  less than half the unemployment rate for new grads, a greater drop than in fields like business, the arts, and education. At 3.0, 2.1 and 3.6 percent, respectively, unemployment for advanced-degree holders in engineering, science and computers/mathematics is lower than in almost all other fields. STEM is still a strong choice, it's important to see which major offers the strongest bang for your buck. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013 - 11:14

Since 45 states adopted new “Common Core” standards for what K-12 students should know and be able to do in math and English, so many spurious or downright fanciful arguments against those standards keep popping up that putting a stop to all of them can feel like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Still, it’s worth taking aim at the most persistent and dubious claims. One such claim is that the new standards will “dumb down” education in this country.

It’s hard to imagine how an idea so totally estranged from reality could ever take hold.

Common Core standards aim to raise the bar for a large majority of American children. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has long campaigned for high standards, found that the Common Core was more rigorous than standards in 46 states and on par with standards in another five. When the respected non-profit research organization WestEd compared Common Core to Massachusetts standards, which had long been considered among the nation’s best, it concluded that Common Core “tend[s] to include a slightly higher percentage of standards that reflect higher levels of cognitive demand.”

States have been bracing themselves for what will happen when the new standards take effect. We’ve already had a preview in Kentucky, one of only two states that has tested students on Common Core so far. The rate of students deemed proficient fell by some 30 percentage points. Hardly evidence of “dumbing down.” (New York has also tested its students on Common Core content, but the results of those tests aren’t in yet.)

And what were things like before Common Core? The Fordham Institute noted that math standards in most states lacked rigor. What’s more, more than half of states set the bar for passing their state math tests near or below where the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called “the nation’s report card,” sets the bar for merely “Basic” performance. As a result, 47 states reported that most of their 8th graders were “proficient” in math in 2009. Only one state reached that level on NAEP.

On its own, Common Core cannot guarantee that states will hold students to a higher bar. That still depends on the quality of the common tests states are still developing. It also depends on states’ courage in setting a high bar for passing their tests. Otherwise, there will be little way of knowing how many students have truly mastered the standards.

But Common Core has been a critical first step to raising standards. To suggest that they are “dumbing down” the American education system is just plain wrong.

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