Sunday, January 31, 2010

Where are we with STEM Education?

The 21st century is being labeled with a number of names, ranging from the Age of the Internet; The Information Age; The Age of Globalization; and a new one I just heard, the Age of Conceptualization. And still others call it the Age of STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I’ll stay away from the Age of Terror that I’ve heard some mention in a more political/warfare sense. In many ways, it does not matter if one chooses any of these because at a basic level they are referring to the same thing.

I was recently at an all-day conference on STEM in the Chicagoland area, where leaders in education (middle school through college was strongly represented), industry, science and engineering (speakers included an astrophysicist, a particle physicist, a robotics specialist, a nanotechnologist, and lead engineer who designed and built the Dubai Tower), and politics (the keynote speaker was Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Illinois 9th) met at Niles North High School to begin a networking group focused on how we should be approaching STEM in schools, with an additional focus on how to improve student research and active involvement in STEM areas while in K-12 schools. It was a wonderful turnout (some 140 leaders from dozens of high schools), and I had the pleasure of being asked to be the table leader for student independent research. Many thanks to the gang from Niles North for putting this together and hosting. I also must compliment Niles North for being a leader in developing a broader STEM program that includes a wonderful facility for research and for getting large numbers of students doing true research.

Where are we with regards to STEM in K-12 education? Like so much in public education, the answer to this question depends almost entirely on where you happen to live. The leaders in STEM tend to be from wealthier suburban districts or magnet-type schools such as the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), whose charter mandates students to do research and pursue scientific/technical activity. The major reason such schools lead the way is that it requires money for students to do research on a larger scale, as well as to recruit and hire instructors with strong research backgrounds to begin setting up programs for students. In Illinois it is especially difficult to break this cycle because of the way schools are funded, which depends severely on local property tax revenue.

News headlines have for some time had a focus on how poorly the U.S. compares on international tests of science and math to the rest of the world. The average American student does not hold up well on such tests. Our top students continue to do extremely well, but there is a growing gap for the overall average. A couple reasons were identified at the conference and there has been a growing consensus over the last couple years as to why this is the case. These include:
• A lack of training and research experience of teachers at all levels of K-12 education. Even in high schools, a shockingly large percentage of science teachers have never actually done research, meaning they have never actually done science. There is a Grand Canyon sized gap between coursework from textbooks and actually doing long-term research in the lab;
• A lack of expertise and time devoted to science and technology in early grades (typically K-5). This has continued to worsen in the age of No Child Left Behind, as time is taken away from science and social studies to focus on reading and math, the two subjects that are tested and go into a school’s AYP status;
• A lack of funding in K-12 education, in terms of having facilities and equipment/supplies to do higher level research. In Illinois and other states that have enormous deficits, this will continue to be the case;
• A disconnect between K-12 and college levels of STEM, largely because of a lack of communication. And I’ll include industry as well. High schools can be at a loss in terms of understanding what, exactly, are the required skills colleges and the workplace are looking for. This has been exasperated by the fact the high schools have been under intense focus for specific science content in order to pass state tests for No Child Left Behind mandates. Colleges and employers are not necessarily only interested in what specific content students have had, but rather they have become more interested in what skills students have developed in order to be successful in college STEM programs and in the workplace.

What can we do about all this? What should we be doing about all this? The answers are NOT being addressed by the federal mandates, and that includes the soon to be new education policy called “The Race to the Top,” which will be the Obama administration’s education policy that replaces the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind. By being on a school board, I have had early exposure to Race to the Top because we had to decide whether or not to send in a Memo of Understanding that was required to be registered with the state board of education in order to be eligible for money coming out of competitive grants. There is a competitive grant program set up between states to meet a large number of criteria in the Race to the Top legislation that will be given to Congress in the not so distant future.

There is a similar flaw in the national and state education policies that have then been dumped on local school districts. It has to do with the mindset of those writing the laws, almost all of whom have never taught in classrooms before. This is what we get by having non-experts writing education policy. What I mean by mindset is that too many still think of education as five separate entities. There is preschool; there is elementary school; there is middle school; there is high school; and there is college. Finally, there is the workplace. There are separate districts in many locales, where preschool is its own entity, then there may be a K-8 elementary district that then feeds into a separate high school district. The districts are often within different boundaries, meaning a K-8 district could feed into multiple high schools, as is the case where I live. There are state tests that are given to K-8, which are written separately from the state tests that are given to high schools. This has been a disaster in Illinois, for example. The elementary test, called ISAT, tests a set of standards that are not aligned with high school standards. In other words, for the past ~8 years of testing for No Child Left Behind, kids passing the ISAT have been promoted to high school thinking they are well prepared, but then they find out they are behind because the standards for the high school test, called the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), are set at a higher level. So a good number of freshman in high school find out their levels of reading and math and already behind where they need to be to meet the standards set up for their junior year of high school, which is when the PSAE is given according to federal law. How messed up is this??? And the tests both come from the same state board of education.

The MINDSET of thinking about 5 levels of education is entirely flawed! We need to think about this as a continuum, not as a disjointed system of education and learning. I am convinced, as are all the other participants at the conference after I brought up the concept of mindset to the group, of an overarching Preschool – College education system. The entire system must have some level of communication and organization that allows for some level of vertical alignment of curriculum and skills-building. This mindset would put us in a model of a pipeline with a continuous laminar flow for students, rather than the turbulence that results from transitions between districts and standards that vary from one level to the next due to nothing more than the rear not knowing what the front is doing. Without this model and way of thinking about education, I fear no reform is possible. Period.

If we buy into this mindset of a continuous, flowing education, then what? How do we begin to fix specific problems with STEM education? For starters, we need to think about where students need to end up by the time they get to the workplace in their early twenties. What skills are going to be needed twenty years from now, for a young child today to be able to compete in tomorrow’s world, where we do not presently even know what jobs are going to exist? This gets tricky because it requires long-term projections and planning, but it is a very good guess that the bulk of good future jobs will require STEM backgrounds. But here’s the thing so many cannot get their heads around – we have to be thinking in terms of SKILLS as much, if not more so, than CONTENT.

Content is important, don’t get me wrong. Going through school, one needs to learn how to write and spell correctly and understand the basic rules of math, and know about the Constitution and how the country works, and know some fundamental principles that science is built upon. Such facts and content is vital in order to continuously build knew knowledge. But whether it is No Child Left Behind or the new proposals in Race to the Top, the end results are focused entirely on content. Schools have been rated in NCLB solely on those tests at the end of the year. Race to the Top will in principle do a little better because the claim is it will focus on academic growth of students, rather than the ridiculous notion that all students should be at the same place at the same time as NCLB assumes. However, the end game is going to be on end of year testing. Race to the Top will take it even one step further, with teacher and principal evaluations being based on test results (that is good for me since I teach AP, and my kids will pass state exams 100% of the time; what about the special ed teacher, though, whose juniors come in reading at a 3rd grade level, and not a single one will pass the test? Am I a better teacher than she is? Probably not, but federal law treats me as far superior since my kids passed the test…a crazy way of doing education!).

End result of both federal education laws: Content is going to continue to rule the day.

Now here is the kicker. To a person, when asked at the conference what does a college professor want from an incoming freshman, every professor in attendance I spoke with and who participated in table discussions as well as the eight featured speakers to the whole group, not a single one mentioned content! They did not care about how much content, beyond the basics that is, a student had in their STEM area. They can teach the content, they all said. But what IS needed, and what IS presently lacking from a majority of incoming college freshman, are skills. For STEM areas, students need to be able to do 2 things according to every professor: be able to read technical literature for understanding, and have the ability to think about and find information to reach logical conclusions, i.e. problem solving (this includes being able to identify how to know what you don’t know, and then be able to go figure out the answer). Skills matter as much and more than specific content for college. The underlying reason for this, by the way, is that many believe we are in a paradigm shift of ages – we are moving from the “Information Age” into the “Age of Conceptualization.” We have collected more information in the past twenty years than human civilization collected in the past 10,000 years combined, and now we have moved into an age of having to figure out what to do with the information. This is why higher-level thinking and problem solving and creative skills come in, for STEM fields have progressed from single disciplinary to multi-disciplinary. We have moved beyond knowing what is in the textbook, and into an age where textbooks in some fields are changing every few months with new discovery…students must be trained to think on the fly and how to synthesize large volumes of information and find the connections between topics from different fields.

Because we treat our education systems as separate blocks of education, we have systemically developed a lack of communication between the blocks. We are focused on the wrong things in the test the content dominated K-12 blocks compared to what the kids should be doing to properly compare for college and the workplace.

We need to take the end result, higher-level thinking and problem solving and creative skills, and work backwards. What do we need to do year-to-year in pre-college education in order to reach the end goals? What are some best practices that allow us to develop not only good content knowledge in students, but also provide an environment and system where skills are developed, too?

Future posts will focus on these last questions.

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