Assessment Opinion

STEM: Why It Makes No Sense

By Marc Tucker — June 19, 2012 7 min read
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Of course you know what STEM stands for: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It’s an acronym, signifying a program and a national priority. The argument for its centrality is simple. Our economy is technology-driven. The strength of that economy depends on our ability to turn out an endless bag full of technological triumphs. Our capacity to fulfill that promise in turn depends on the skills of our people in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But we are swiftly falling behind a growing number of other countries with respect to both the quality and quantity of people with the needed STEM skills. So, inevitably, we place a high priority on the production of more people with higher quality STEM skills. The logic is ironclad, isn’t it? Or is it?

Here is an interesting fact. The countries that are producing more people with higher skills in mathematics, science, engineering, technology, and science don’t have STEM programs. When we do benchmarking research in those countries, we don’t hear their educators talking about STEM priorities. We don’t hear their industrial leaders doing that either. The term is not used. The programs don’t exist.

What is going on here? How come they are doing better at this when we have STEM programs and they don’t?

The answer is that they have education systems that work and we don’t. When we start falling behind in an area, we invent a program. When they start falling behind, they ask, What’s wrong with our system? And they fix it. The truth is that “programs” won’t work in an arena like this. The causes of our poor performance in these disciplines run deep. Those causes implicate the inner workings of our education system. It is not possible to ring fence the STEM subjects from the system itself, nor is it possible to build a strong secondary school STEM program on a weak elementary school curriculum. If you try to do that, you will fail. If you think that you can fix the problems in the STEM subjects without fixing the larger system, you will find that any progress you make will be limited and even that progress will disappear very quickly as the system reverts to form as soon as your back is turned. This is not because educators are opposed to your objectives or fail to share your hopes for their students. It is because they are as much trapped by the system as you are. We are all in this together.

Skeptical? Read on.

The essentials of the strategies used by the top-performing countries to get to the top of the world’s education league tables are not mysterious. They put more money behind their hardest-to-educate kids and less behind their easiest-to-educate, the opposite of what we do. They have very high standards for entering their teachers’ colleges, as high as the standards for getting into their high status professional schools, whereas we have virtually no standards for entering teachers colleges. They insist that their teachers really know their subjects. This is true even in elementary school, where teachers are typically required to decide whether they will teach English and social studies or math and science, and they have to at least minor in the subjects they will teach in elementary school. In this country, of course, it is standard practice for our elementary school teachers to teach math without ever having taken a college-level math course, never mind having minored in math. They require their prospective teachers to spend a least a year mastering the craft of teaching before getting licensed, and then typically apprentice them to a master teacher for a year after they’ve been hired for their first job. We celebrate programs that pretend to teach teachers the craft of teaching in a few weeks and we don’t even have people called master teachers in most of our school districts, never mind assign them to the preparation of new teachers. They pay their beginning teachers at about the same level as their beginning engineers, which is only a dream in the United States. Most have moved their teacher education programs out of their third tier institutions into their major research universities, something we have never considered doing. They have high quality national or state instructional systems which instantiate internationally benchmarked standards in all the core subjects in the curriculum into first class, deeply thoughtful course syllabi, and the resulting curriculum is used to create high quality (NOT multiple-choice, computer-scored) examinations; and they teach their teachers to teach those courses well in their schools of education. And they create curriculum frameworks, which specify a logical order for introducing topics grade by grade so that all students have an opportunity to study those topics in depth and at the right point in the sequence. There is more, about early childhood education, expenditure patterns, the way they handle school to work transition for young people, and the way they govern their systems, but this is enough to make my point.

Our most effective competitors do not need STEM programs because they have done all these things, which are the things you have to do to have a first rate education system. Probably the single most important result of these measures is that they allow these countries to recruit their teachers from their top high school graduates, while the United States is increasingly recruiting from the bottom.

This permits me to ask some questions. Do you think we will have top math and science performance in our secondary schools if we staff our elementary schools with teachers who know very little math or science and are scared of both? Do you think we can get top engineers from secondary schools that pay their math, science and engineering teachers (if they have any at all) far below what people trained in those subjects can make in private industry? Do you think that we can match the performance of the top-performing countries in math, science, engineering and technology without having done the work that they have done to build first rate curriculum to support all of those subjects from kindergarten through grade 12? Do you think that we can get the supply of young people we need to staff government and industry in the STEM areas while writing off our minority and low-income students, which is what we are doing every day, as long as we provide more money to our wealthiest students than to those who are harder to educate? Do you really believe that we will solve our STEM problems as long as young people believe that our teachers’ colleges are the place you go if you cannot get into any other professional school?

Are you with me so far? Good, because it is only one more step to the goal line. Do you believe that it is possible to greatly raise the standards for getting into teacher education programs for the STEM subjects while leaving the standards for getting into teacher prep programs for all the other subjects where they are? Do you think we can greatly raise pay for teachers in the STEM subjects while leaving the pay for teachers of other subjects where it is? Can you imagine how we would train our STEM teachers in our major universities and leave the training of teachers in all the other subjects in our former normal schools? Do you suppose that we could create professional working conditions for the STEM teachers in our schools while we leave all others working in the blue-collar environments in which they now teach? How, I wonder, would we change our school finance system for students going only to classes in the STEM subjects while we leave the same old school finance system in place for those same students while they study the other subjects in the curriculum? Can you imagine that the states would put in place very high quality and very expensive assessments for the STEM subjects and continue to use the same old multiple-choice-computer-scored tests for all the other subjects in the curriculum?

Nope. None of that is going to happen. The people who believe that STEM is in many ways the key to a successful American economy in the years ahead--and I am one of them--will have to abandon their ring fence and join the rest of us. They will have to accept the fact that the only way to attain their goal is to reshape the whole system, following the examples of the nations that continue to outpace us every day. To get the progress they demand in STEM, they will have to abandon their belief that they can get what they want with STEM programs. It is not possible.

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