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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, February 12, 2013 - 17:03

Today  in a full page letter published in the New York Times, 42 Change the Equation companies voiced their support for the Common Core initiative. Mindful of challenges ahead — like disappointing initial test scores leading to public backlash — the corporate community  provided very public support for work underway in states, districts, and classrooms nationwide to improve student performance on world-class content. We applaud the resolve of education leaders who are determined to succeed on such a worthy goal.  

For there is much to do. We learned yesterday that ninth graders in Georgia did poorly on the first administration of an algebra test tied to the Common Core State Standards. Almost 60 percent of Georgia students did not pass the end-of-course exam in a new course called Coordinate Algebra.  Similar to earlier results from Florida and Kentucky, there was a significant drop in the number of students who were proficient on rigorous assessments tied to the rigorous Common Core content.

To their credit, these states do not plan to water down the rigor of courses or assessments.  Recognizing that Common Core describes the knowledge and skills needed for success in the workplace and in life, education officials have re-affirmed their commitment to ensuring widespread student mastery in rigorous coursework.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 10:17

In January came news that computer scientists and engineers again commanded the highest salaries right out of college in 2012. That news prompted fresh chorus of voices deriding degrees in “softer” subjects like English or art history as a waste of time and money. That’s unfortunate. We’re very big fans of efforts to get more young people into computers and engineering, but it makes no sense, none at all, to dismiss other whole disciplines in the process.

It is true that computer scientists and engineers (along with other STEM majors) have weathered the recent downturn pretty well. Not only did they get paid better than most, they tended to hold on to their jobs. Not every STEM worker has come through great recession unscathed, however. Our own research found that civil engineers, for example, faced tough odds as spending on infrastructure dried up. On balance, though, people in STEM fields had more opportunities than those who didn’t, and companies faced a shortage of STEM talent, even in lean times.

But that’s no reason to go on about “useless” or “worthless” majors. If everyone were dead set on being an engineer, we’d have a lot of unemployed engineers—and those who did find a job would work for nickels and dimes. By our own expansive definition, STEM jobs make up about 13 percent of all jobs. Although that percentage will grow in the coming years, that still leaves a big piece of the pie for non-STEM majors. Surely we have room for English, history, or (gasp) visual arts majors.

Those who scoff at the arts or humanities miss an important point: Arts and humanities majors can do quite well for themselves if they have strong STEM skills. A great writer can do well in marketing, but she had better understand data. A wonderful designer can help create killer apps, but he had better have a good grasp of technology. In fact, researchers at Georgetown found that the vast majority of jobs require STEM skills. The flip side of that argument is that a strong grounding in the arts and humanities can give people with STEM skills a real edge in the job market. Even Tom Friedman, that apostle of STEM skills, counseled engineering schools to offer more music.

So, if you’re going to major in the arts or humanities, all the power to you. But take advanced math. Learn how to program. Seek out skills that will help you carry your passions into the world of work.

The rest of us should stop sneering at visual art, French literature, or any other field that that seems impractical or arcane. Even engineers and computer scientists wouldn’t suffer from a bit of Manet or Molière.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 12:19

Today we're taking a look at how women do internationally on science tests, how Next Gen adoption is progressing, and how to teach innovation. Sit back and enjoy!

Obama's Immigration Plan 

Keep an eye on STEM and immigration: they're likely to be in the news a great deal over the next several weeks. Both the President and Congressional leaders have made "staple" visas, where foreign graduates in STEM fields earn a visa as well, a tenet of their immigration-overhaul packages. Employers would pay a fee, which would then be used to fund science education, much like a Microsoft proposal last fall.  

States Soon to Weigh Science-Standards Adoption

With the final version of Next Gen Science Standards coming in just a few months, eyes are now turning toward implementation of the "common" science standards. And while experts expect roughly 30 states to sign on, they also point to areas in which science standards will be more contentious than Common Core Math and ELA Standards were -- think climate change -- and predict that signing on might take a few years.   

 Girls Lead in Science Exam, but Not in the United States

The gender gap in science is something that gets talked about a lot, but these graphs from the New York Times show how it's simply not a problem in many other nations. In fact, in Finland, Shanghai, Japan, and many Middle Eastern countries, the girls outscore the boys on the international PISA exam. These results show that it's not an issue of innate ability, but rather cultural attitudes of home countries. 

7 Essential Principles of Innovative Learning

Mind/Shift has a great list of resources for educators on how to create innovative, learner-centric innovation in the classroom. 

Are iPads and Other Classroom Gadgets Really Helping Kids learn?

Meanwhile, Peg Tyre urges thoughtfulness and caution when implementing education technology. Read to find out more about the changes education technology has wraught, and how much money it's actually saving. 

Hey Science Teachers -- Make it Fun

High school science teacher Tyler DeWitt urges teachers to make science fun and accessible for students, and offers some advice on how, through a pretty engaging TED Talk.  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 08:00

No one wins when states hold their K-12 students to a low bar, but it is low-income and minority students who suffer the most. Low expectations can conceal just how far such students lag behind their peers and dampen the urgency of raising their performance.

Last week, we demonstrated how dramatically those achievement gaps grew in five states that made their tests harder to pass. Well, here’s a sixth state. On January 29, Texas released the results of the tougher math test it debuted in 2011/2012. Note what happened to achievement gaps after the new test went into force. (The white/Black achievement gap would be 10 percent if 50 percent of white students and 40 percent of Black students passed the state tests)

Gaps in the Percentage of Students Passing the Texas 4th- and 8th- Grade Math Tests, by Race/Ethnicity and Income


White/Black  Gap

White/Hispanic Gap






Grade 4





Grade 8





So what lessons should we draw from this doubling of gaps? Here are a few:

  • Educate yourself. Official data on achievement gaps can be very misleading, especially in states whose tests focus mostly on basic skills or have low “cut scores”—the scores students need to pass. Such tests aren’t very sensitive to big differences in students’ knowledge or skills. (Find out more about where your state sets the bar in math or science.)
  • Brace yourself. If your state sets a low bar, get ready for a shock when that bar goes up. No group of students will fare well, but the passing rates of low-income students and students of color may fall the farthest.
  • Be vigilant. States are planning big changes, but they could backslide. The vast majority have adopted common standards for academic content in K-12 and are designing common tests of that content. They will have to set common cut scores in the next couple of years, and wonks the nation over will be watching closely. Check in with us or other experts to see if the new cut scores reflect real-world demand for knowledge and skills rather than political timidity.)
  • Be patient. Some critics will seize on plummeting passing rates and widening gaps as evidence that schools are in decline. That’s just not true. It is true, however, that schools have improved too slowly. Better state tests can offer better markers of progress.

The stakes of this discussion could hardly be higher. Many breathless claims about "what works" in education rest on state tests that might obscure at least as much as they reveal. New, more challenging tests could be the start of a whole new ball game. Let's hope so.

Friday, February 1, 2013 - 11:37

Ten years ago today, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts on board nearly instantly and calling into question the future of the space shuttle program. 

The crash was caused by a damaged wing, the result of a piece of foam (which was used to weight the shuttle) dislodging during the launch and striking the wing. The foam breakage was discovered shortly after the launch, but the "foam shedding" was considered a fairly common occurance and, while flight video showed that it had definitely hit the wing, no immediate action was taken.  At least four previous flights had had foam break off and had landed successfully. Post-crash analysis showed that, in the case of the Columbia, the briefcase-sized piece had struck the wing and created a hole at least six inches wide in the heat shield. 

Whether or not a rescue flight could have been possible is debated -- it would have requried immediate knowledge of the potential consequences and pushing up a scheduled Atlantis flight, but could theoretically have happened. 

Following the accident, the space shuttle program was immediately suspended and investigators began an exhaustive review. The investigation determined that while the foam loss had been the immediate cause of the accident, NASA's culture also played a part, as warnings from lower-level employees had gone unheeded. The space shuttle program resumed in 2006, though all remaining space shuttles -- the Atlantis, the Enterprise, the Discovery, and the Endeavour -- retired in 2011. During the last week of January or the first week of February every year, NASA marks a Day of Remembrance, as the Challenger and the Apollo   and the Challenger explosions occurred on January 27 and January 28, respectively.

The seven astronauts of Columbia -- Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Lareul Clark -- left behind twelve children

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 15:30

STEM Connector released a big, thumping report today that bears the very descriptive title, “Where are the STEM Students? What are their Career Interests? Where are the STEM Jobs?” (Get an executive summary here. The full 200+ page tome is for sale in the STEMConnector bookstore.)The report offers tantalizing new national and state-level data on how many students from different backgrounds are interested in STEM careers. It also cites previously published data on trends in STEM jobs. Intrepid readers who sift through the data—and there are a lot of data—can gain some real insights into what kinds of students are most interested in STEM.

Some Highlights

Reading through the report has been like panning for gold. Here are some of the valuable nuggets we have found so far:

  • High school girls’ interest in STEM seems to be falling, even as interest among boys rises. The data suggests that girls’ interest in STEM peaked in the class of 2010 and has been dropping off since. This comes in direct contrast to the trend for boys, who have been showing more interest with every successive graduating class. This will come as bad news for all of us who have been working to get more girls into STEM
  • Students with a “B” average in high school are much less interested in STEM than those with a C average or less. Why would that be? Are we paying too little attention to good students even as we lavish attention on great students? The A students are most interested, which isn’t surprising.
  • Those who aim to go to technical or vocational school are much more likely to be interested in STEM careers than those who have set their sights on other kinds of colleges. Nearly four in ten students with plans for technical or vocational school are interested in STEM, compared to fewer than three in ten students who aspire to private colleges, for example. This is just another reminder that we should never minimize the value of technical school as we sing the praises of college.
  • Students with an interest in STEM are much less likely than their peers to express interest in child care or development. We still have work to do to get STEM students interested in teaching.

The report breaks out its student interest data by race, ethnicity and gender, STEM discipline, STEM occupation, and a number of other categories. For more interesting highlights from the data, see Erik Robelen’s fine blog today.

Unanswered Questions

The report’s authors have not yet answered the biggest questions we have about the demand for STEM talent, but nor has anyone else to date: Just how big will the gap in each state be between the supply of STEM students and the demand for STEM skills? In which STEM fields is that gap most apparent?  (We tried to offer a general sense of the current gap between supply and demand in our special Vital Signs brief, STEM Help Wanted.)

Still, the report’s data on student interest can be very suggestive. As the number of jobs requiring STEM skills continues to grow, it is not at all clear that students’ interest is keeping pace.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 10:26

January is National Mentoring Month. For a student, building a personal connection with a STEM professional can be an important, and overlooked, inspiration for pursuing a STEM career. This is particularly true for young women and students of color, who may not necessarily "see" themselves in STEM. Techbridge is an afterschool program that helps girls build an interest in STEM, particularly through partnering with local professionals. Their executive director, Linda Kekelis, wrote CTEq a guest post explaining the importance of mentorship. 

Linda Kekelis

It’s not lack of ability that prevents girls from going into technology or engineering, but lack of interest or opportunity. Imagine that there was a program just for girls. We invited girls to do just that. Their ideas helped to shape Techbridge. 

In after-school and summer programs Techbridge girls build with Legos, make lip balm, solder solar night lights, and build green dollhouse. These projects get girls thinking about how things work, introduce them to the engineering design process, and help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.

Role Models Help Expand Girls’ Options. 

Hands-on projects are so important but they are not enough. We want to encourage girls to imagine their futures in STEM. We can’t do that without you—corporate partners that open their doors and role models who inspire.

Training is Key: Recipe for Success

Interactions with role models require just the right combination of career guidance and social engagement.  We have been working with corporate partners, helping host field trips and classroom visits for 13 years. We have learned a lot about what works (and what doesn’t). Here is our recipe for success.

  1. Be personal and passionate, communicating how work matters.  We advise role models, “When you get excited, the students will too.”  With a personal story role models can describe how their work makes a difference in making the world a better place. We also encourage role models to talk about their lives outside of work—to describe their hobbies, friends, and family.  This helps dispel stereotypes about what life as a computer scientist or mechanical engineer is like.
  2. Engage and inspire students through a hands-on activity.  The activity may be related to work or introduce processes like generating and testing hypotheses that are key to scientific and technical careers.
  3. Share successes and challenges and how you persevered. Knowing that you overcame a challenge in middle school conveys an important message—if you work hard at something and find resources you can succeed.
  4. Share advice on what girls can do right here, right now. Role models can encourage youth to participate in summer programs, take advanced math and science classes, and find mentors.

Stay the Course

Support for outreach comes and goes. When budgets have to be cut, what often go first are the resources that support outreach.

I ask that we rethink outreach and its funding. The next generation of our leaders and workers will be affected by our decisions to cut or continue these programs. Instead of asking if we can afford to support outreach programs for youth, we need to ask if we can afford not to support these programs.

A High Return on Investment

When all the pieces are in place—when events are well planned and supported with training—role models and field trips can be transformational. They lead to increased confidence and interest in STEM. Interest that is sparked on a field trip can persist for years and set youth on a path and help them stay the course in STEM.


We are pleased to share our resources so that others don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Whether you are brand new and planning your first event or are a seasoned veteran with years of experience, our role model guide and training can strengthen your efforts. You can download them on our website.

About Techbridge

Promoting career exploration is an important element of Techbridge. Techbridge offers hands-on science and engineering opportunities for girls and partners with Bay Area school districts to encourage youth to experience science and technology in a fun, informal way. Techbridge also works with local and national partners to support youth’s engagement in STEM out of school.  Find out how you can spark the engineer and scientist in youth in your community at

It takes a village to inspire the next generation of computer programmers, engineers, and biomedical researchers. Techbridge is here to help you. Together we can make a difference!

Monday, January 28, 2013 - 14:50

Last week STEM got a nod in the inaugural address. While nothing quite as historical happened in the last seven days, it was still a packed week for STEM. Here are your quick hits to keep you up to date. 

Q and A: Consortium Tackles Family, Class Issues in Steering Minorities to STEM Majors

Getting more underrepresented groups into STEM fields is going to take more than just offering rigorous courses at inner-city schools. Recently the Verizon Foundation partnered with Pace University in New York to launch the STEM Center Collaboratory, to bring together officials, teachers, and academics can come together to help solve the problem.  The National Journal has a great Q&A with Jonathan Hill, associate dean at Pace, and Lauren Birney, an assistant professor of education at Pace, who are heading up the project. 

Why Smart Poor Students Don't Apply to Selective Colleges (And how to fix it) 

Getting more low-income students to scale the walls of elite institutions is unquestionably an aim of education policy these days -- for businesses, it's a necessity to continuing to grow the workforce and a major area for philanthropy. But even when well-qualified for rigorous four-year schools, many low-income students don't even apply. The Atlantic takes a look at why, and offers some solutions for the future. 

Revolution Hits the Universities

 MOOCs are here to stay, and Thomas Friedman, in the Sunday Times, offers an assessment of their current (explosive) growth, as well as how he imagines MOOCs might play into higher education in the future. Given the announcement, also last week, that a few colleges are beginning to design systems where MOOC credit can lead to degrees, that future may be very, very near. 

Top K-12 Senator Tom Harkin to Retire

Tom Harkin, the Iowa Dem who heads the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, Pension) Committee -- and therefore leads most K-12 ed legislation -- announced over the weekend that he is retiring after five terms. This could mean potentially big changes in the federal education agenda, including, potentially, an opening to reauthorize ESEA. 

Chinese Graduates Say No Thanks to Factory Jobs

The number of students graduating from Chinese universities has long been a potential cause for concern in the U.S., as it continues to outpace American grads. But for many of those grads, an underemployed, and under-paid, future awaits, as many discover that it's not the ticket to the middle class they initially thought it was.

We Need More Than STEM

History pushes back on the idea that we need more STEM education, arguing instead to boost the diminishing support for the social sciences. Thoughts?  

Monday, January 28, 2013 - 12:09

For years now, states have been reporting “academic achievement gaps” that separate students by race, ethnicity and income. Yet for all that attention, decision makers in many states may not know how big the problem really is. In some states, very low expectations of students have long masked just how far many minority and low-income youth lag behind their peers in school. Now that dozens of states are preparing to raise the bar on their tests, those achievement gaps may seem to explode overnight.

We cannot let that prospect soften our resolve to keep the bar high. Tests should tell us the truth about how our students are doing, or we’ll have little hope of giving those students the help they need.

We all know that fewer students of all backgrounds will pass state tests after states with low expectations adopt new common standards and make those tests harder. Less well known is the fact that the passing rates of low-income or minority students will probably tumble the farthest.

Here’s a quick overview of what happened in five states that recently made their math tests more rigorous or raised the scores students must earn to pass them. The tables below show achievement gaps before and after each state changed its test. (What’s an achievement gap? In this case, the white/Black achievement gap would be 10 percentage points if 50 percent of white students and 40 percent of Black students passed the state test. The “Income” gap measures the difference in passing rates between students who receive free or subsidized lunches (a common measure of low-income) and those who do not.)

Gaps in Mathematics Achievement Before and After States Raised the Bar

4th Grade:

Table of Math results


8th Grade:

Table of 8th grade math results

In most cases, the gaps grew, often dramatically, after the bar went up. There are exceptions of course,† and the changes in some states are starker than in others, but the overall pattern is striking.

So why does this matter? Since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, we have celebrated schools that have narrowed or closed gaps among different “subgroups” of students. In some states, those schools’ success might be as much an artifact of the tests as of anything else. That may come as a terrible shock as new assessments come on line. Award-winning school districts may lose some of their luster. “Blue Ribbon” schools may be dethroned. Some principals and teachers who thought they had mastered the gaps may have to reexamine their practice. 

Yet this outcome shouldn’t be so shocking for anyone who has followed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which offers a consistent and reliable picture of student progress across all states. Most states have larger achievement gaps on NAEP than on their own state tests. But NAEP does not produce results for single schools or students. They have to rely on state tests for information about their progress.

Yes, this will be a very bitter pill for many schools and communities that have been working hard for equity, but the alternative is much worse. Some businesses have learned very painful lessons about what happens when their measures of performance inflate their successes and conceal their shortcomings. We’re learning similar messages in education. If state tests aren’t sensitive enough to measure real inequity, it becomes all too easy to ignore it.  


* We had to estimate income-based achievement gaps in Kentucky and Virginia. Both states report proficiency rates of low-income students, but they do not report achievement gaps between students who are low income and those who are not. We estimated those achievement gaps by using U.S. Department of Education data on each state’s student enrollment, broken out by income, to estimate proficiency rates of Kentucky and Virginia students who are not low-income. That, in turn, allowed us to estimate the gaps.


Black 8th graders in Kentucky and Michigan are the biggest exceptions here. In Michigan, however, 8th grade is an outlier. Black/white achievement gaps in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th grades grew substantially after Michigan raised the scores required to pass the state tests.

Friday, January 25, 2013 - 11:08

Alexander Graham Bell speaks into the telephoneFew inventions more directly signaled the advent of the modern era better than the telephone, and today is the anniversary of two important dates in telecommunications. First, in 1881,  two early titans, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, created the Oriental Telephone Company, which sold telephones in Asian countries, from Turkey to China. Second, while Bell  initially invented the telephone in 1876, it was on January 25, 1915, that he inaugurated transcontinental phone service, speaking from New York to his onetime assistant Thomas Watson, in San Francisco. 

According to an article published in the New York Times the day after the transcontinental call, the 1915 call was much clearer than the first telephone call, despite the distance. To commemorate their first conversation, the two men spoke on a model of the original telephone, after establishing contact on a more modern (for 1915!) device. The wires connecting the two men also looped in telelphones in Georgia and Washington, creating what we'll refer to as a conference call. Several people joined into the call, including the mayors of New York and San Francisco, and President Woodrow Wilson, who congratulated both Watson and Bell on their achievements. 

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