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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

We’re Getting STEAMrolled: Stop Creating Favored Classes of Content

By Guest Blogger — December 01, 2014 3 min read
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Note: Jonathan Plucker, the Raymond Neag Professor of Education at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week. He can be found on Twitter at @JonathanPlucker.

When did we, as a country, decide to make science and social studies electives? In 2010, NCES reported that only a third of Grade 4 students attended schools where administrators reported focused instruction on civics or government. In the same year, NCES also found evidence that only 27% of Grade 4 students’ teachers report that they teach about other countries and cultures at least once per week. I’ve seen it with my own children, and I hear similar stories from educators and parents around the country.

Consider the following data, which I compiled for Grade 4 and Grade 8 students, using the most recent NAEP test results for each content area (look carefully at the most recent assessment in each content area, which is also telling).

The first set of data, representing the percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced, is pretty much what many would predict. The math and reading results are not great, but they are considerably better than most other content areas. I was a little surprised that (a) science was so high and (b) writing wasn’t higher, suggesting that we’re teaching more science and less writing than I realized.

But these data also made me wonder if the results would look the same if we only included students scoring at the advanced level. Those data are provided below.

The data on our top scorers indicate a starker difference between math/reading and other content areas. Anomalies aside, these results suggest that you get the outcomes you deserve: When you spend time primarily on reading and math, you get better reading and math results and other content areas suffer.

Unfortunately, I see no easy answers to rebalance instruction across content areas, and I’d love to hear your ideas for how we can do it. Some of the ideas my colleagues have shared are well-meaning and original (and by “my colleagues,” I am including myself), but on further reflection, I doubt their practicality. For example, one frequent suggestion is to make the entire curriculum problem- and community-based, which fits well with many popular approaches to learning theory but would almost certainly leave big holes in student knowledge and skills. Others suggest annual assessment of student progress in a broader range of content areas, yet teachers can’t magically add 20 hours to each day, which is the only way we’ll see balanced instructional time across elementary classrooms in an “every content area is high stakes” scenario. Maybe we can fully departmentalize and specialize teachers in elementary schools, like we do in most middle schools and just about all high schools. How about integrating certain content into other areas? These are sensible suggestions, grounded in theory and some research, but my sense is that they sound better at the 30,000-foot level than at ground level.

However, one way I see people trying to address the problem feels very ill-advised. The attempt by many to fight the narrowing by injecting art into STEM (and, like some sort of magical alchemy, creating STEAM) feels very misguided. If art, why not social studies, or writing, or physical education, or foreign languages, or ?

The irony is that only the “M” in STEM appears to be a favored content area right now. Rather than STEAM, why not RAM (Reading, Arts, and Mathematics), which is probably a smarter advocacy strategy and a fitting acronym? Or STREAMSS, which includes just about everything under the sun (sorry, writing, but W doesn’t work in most acronyms)? The STEAM approach essentially favors one additional class of content over another, which only exacerbates the “most favored content” problem that we’re dealing with now.

I’m fully aware that one response to these thoughts is that the American curriculum, due to federalism and local control, has had very uneven content coverage for a long time, perhaps forever. That’s a fair point, but my concern is that Americans, for just as long of a time, have had two solutions to this problem. First, import talent as needed to fill gaps created by skimping on certain content. There’s evidence that strategy is no longer as reliable as it used to be.

Second, those with sufficient means place their children in private schools that offer a more appealing mix of content and/or provide evening, weekend, and summer experiences that fill in the big gaps. It’s the classic rich-get-richer conundrum that NCLB and related standards and testing reforms were supposed to help solve, not enhance.

--Jonathan Plucker

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.