How Massachusetts became the best educated state in the Union.

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STEM Education Readiness Under a New Administration

With mounting concerns due to election results, we should re-direct our attention toward Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education.  The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development just released test averages in reading, mathematics, and science for 540,000 students in 72 countries who completed the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. Together, these exams assess how well 15-year-olds apply reading, science, and mathematics to real-world problem-solving.  US teens continue to place in the middle ranks in reading and science, but they have dropped significantly below the mean in mathematics (http://www.businessinsider.com/pisa-worldwide-ranking-of-math-science-reading-skills-2016-12, AND https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-results-in-focus.pdf).  Also announced were 60 international averages of students who participated in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) assessment (https://nces.ed.gov/timss/). These results more tightly measure math and science curricular knowledge for fourth and eighth graders, as well as specific advanced knowledge of high school seniors. To our credit, US students have gradually improved on the TIMMS tests.  Ominously, however, they still fall significantly below the best performing countries on both PISA and TIMMS assessments.  Comparing results between tests indicates that older students, not ours, in the top performing countries retain their prowess in STEM subjects.  Further pointing to a lack of STEM preparation, if inequitably, are recent college graduation data.  At best, 17% of American students from high income, low minority backgrounds earn STEM degrees within six years of high school graduation, yet only 6% of their low income, high minority cohorts do the same. (https://nscblog.org/2015/11/six-year-stem-graduation-rates-low/ ).  Meanwhile the US Department of Education projected a 14% increase in all STEM jobs (16% in mathematics alone) by 2020 (http://www.ed.gov/stem). At these rates, young American workers cannot fill STEM jobs, even if the new administration somehow creates them.

The Obama administration recognized the need for attracting students to STEM fields, creating a number of programs to increase student flow in the STEM pipeline.  The reader can learn about these programs on the Department of Education website: http://www.ed.gov/stem. Unfortunately, no one knows what will happen to these programs under the new administration.  Regardless, we need to look hard at why American students continue to drop ranks in applied quantitative reasoning. Fortunately, three redundant research indicators, socio-economic status, teacher quality, and school quality, have led to strategies to improve student achievement. While our state has initiated some of these strategies, others are bogged down in institutional inertia.  Nevertheless, we know by comparison with the best educational systems in the world that STEM prowess in the US will never improve unless we aggressively address these three indicators.  (http://www.ncsl.org/documents/educ/Edu_International_FinaI_V2.pdf AND https://usm.maine.edu/sites/default/files/cepare/What_Can_Educators_and_Policymakers_Learn_from_High-Performing_Countries_on_International_Assessments.pdf) AND http://ncee.org/what-we-do/center-on-international-education-benchmarking/top-performing-countries/finland-overview/finland-teacher-and-principal-quality/ AND https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/how-high-achieving-countries-develop-great-teachers.pdf AND http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2012/countries-that-best-prepare-math-teachers-share-similarities/ AND many more)

How to do it? First, we must treat educational inequity as symptom of low socio-economic status.  Indeed, this problem may be the hardest to operationally address.  Even wealthy states, like Massachusetts, a SIMMS and PISA leader, continue to struggle with educational inequity.  Likewise, more socialistic, equity conscious nations, like Finland, struggle with this issue.  Blindly throwing millions of dollars into districts where the National School Lunch Program is endemic, however, is not the answer.  Rather, creating crisp STEM programs in these districts, run by excellent educators, is key (https://www.nap.edu/read/13158/chapter/5 ), and such programs already exist. (See, for example, the Washington STEM website at http://www.washingtonstem.org/.)  In particular, but not solely, STEM programs should target promising students, clearing a path for their continued success.  Doing this will introduce motivated, talented learners into the STEM pipeline, equitably increasing knowledge, teaching ability, and power in our workforce.

Second, we must become more selective and rigorous in our teacher education programs. In high performing educational systems, BEFORE being admitted to teacher education programs, applicants MUST demonstrate their passion for, and their exceptional knowledge in their content areas. Exceptional content knowledge, passion included, and excellent teaching ability are NOT mutually exclusive. You must have both!   (http://ncee.org/what-we-do/center-on-international-education-benchmarking/top-performing-countries/finland-overview/finland-teacher-and-principal-quality/). Producing content savvy, passionate teachers is becoming harder in the US, where universities feel pressure to fill seats, yet squeeze out students in four years; where the price of college education has become oppressive, so students carry loan debts for decades; where economically necessary student employment displaces study time and burns the necessary energy to deeply learn anything. Increasingly, we see our students default to compartmentalized “cramming” of facts, rather than digging for deeper meaning in a passionate quest.  Yet, learning complex STEM subjects demands more than shallow study.  Most critically, we know that remediating student teachers in their content areas is costly, time-consuming, and ineffective, yet many education programs largely repeat high school content, rather than properly embed it into higher level material. Prospective STEM teachers need to be exceedingly academically prepared, motivated, and passionate. Only then, can they instill these qualities in their students.

That stated, knowing and loving your subject is not enough to be a good teacher.  Student teachers need to complete well-guided apprenticeships in excellent schools, where they gain ample, effective feedback.  With STEM majors in hand, Finnish teachers, for example, emerge classroom ready from their year-long apprenticeships, but they enjoy professional development as they teach. (http://ncee.org/2016/12/pisa-2015-results/).  This is not the norm in the US, nor in Washington state. Instead, here, prospective teachers student teach for a couple of months or less, while they write lengthy graduation portfolios, graded by Pearson Education, Inc. for a $300 fee. They must pass an exit exam in their content area, graded by Pearson Education, Inc. for a $95 fee.  They may be required to store their classroom work in electronic portfolios for an additional $100 fee, as a means of data dumping toward program accreditation. Not quite broke yet, most of them again pay Pearson or their higher education institutions to learn HOW to write their portfolios and HOW to pass their exit exams.  Disturbingly, there is no direct, grounded evidence that any of this bureaucratic fluff produces good educators.  Remediation, data collection, and summative assessments rarely replace effective long-term learning.   Rather, they become (and now are) punitive actions instituted to make up for excellent preparation. Consequently, prospective teachers rack up $30,000 student loans, while Pearson Publishing Company helps them go into debt.  Nevertheless, Washington teachers desperately need and deserve recently proposed salary increases. Yet, STEM education will not significantly improve here until we replace expensive, ineffective bureaucratic control with selective, rigorous teacher education programs. Good models are out there ( http://www.ncsl.org/documents/educ/Edu_International_FinaI_V2.pdf AND MANY OTHERS)

Finally, there is ample evidence that students achieve more in good schools, where their teachers enjoy fierce administrative support, where those teachers control, organize, and plan what they teach, and where they enjoy on-going, thematic, coherent professional development programs ( (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vince-bertram/a-global-model-for-stem-e_b_5953014.html AND http://www.washingtonstem.org/.)  Such schools exist in the US as well as in other countries, so we again have models to follow (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vince-bertram/a-global-model-for-stem-e_b_5953014.html) To learn how to do this, schools need to partner with higher education systems that clearly and evidently nourish passionate, rigorous learning and teaching.  Those partnerships must support structured apprenticeships and provide high quality professional development.  In essence, powerful schools with knowledgeable teachers, running effective programs will make us STEM ready.

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This blog is dedicated to mathematically preparing high school students  for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the  STEM fields. As such, the comments herein document and critique educational research, curricula, and pedagogical practices associated with STEM preparation.  The author welcomes your comments.

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