Mike the Mad Biologist

We Have STEM Subcrises, Not a National Crisis

A recent report bemoaning the sorry state of STEM training and education has been updated and re-released. Like most of these reports, it fits into the typical morality play of educational decline. Sadly, even bloggers I respect have bought into this. We’ll leave aside the calls for more awarding of advanced degrees in the sciences, even as there is a scientist glut (that’s been going on since I was an undergraduate; why do you think all those quants went to Wall Street?). What I want to discuss is STEM (science and mathematics actually) education in K-12.

As regular readers of this blog will know, the myth of the supposed failure of our educational system is not true: some states do very well–in fact, in math (that would be the “M” in STEM), they exceed every European country, and many Asian countries (most of which don’t have nearly the same levels of income inequality).

We have also seen, when we look at individual demographic groups, steady, albeit slow gains, since the late 1970s (which are certainly not due to teachers [/snark]) in math. For science, the long term data only start from 1990, but it shows the same trend. (An aside: The gains are slow, such that they don’t appear significant over a four year period. Nonetheless, African Americans have gained about one grade of proficiency per decade. Not failure). If you don’t believe me, check out the NAEP website: there’s all sorts of handy data there.

I don’t mean to be pollyanish about this. Some states do miserably. And some states do worse than we would expect, given their student populations. And some have poor students who do worse than we would predict. But, on the other hand, some states (and regions) do very well.

Now, I can’t blame people, including PZ, because Obama, along with many other Rockefeller Republicans neo-liberals says things like this:

“Across the board in middle class suburbs…you are still seeing a decline in terms of math and science performance, and one of the things we are very excited about…we are going to specifically focus on training 10,000 new math and science teachers. We’ve got to boost performance in that area.”

That’s not true at all. In a statistically trivial sense, scores haven’t moved much, but when we recognize that the underlying demography of the national student body has changed, we see increases over the long term, especially among minorities, even minorities lag behind whites.

I don’t want us to stop trying to improve education (although where it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but if we don’t recognize the exact nature of the problem (lagging performance by minorities and the poor)–along with our successes–we will fail fix the problems that do exist, or, even worse, break things that work.

Comments

  1. #1 darwinsdog
    September 29, 2010

    I taught for many years, at just about all levels: 2nd thru 8th grade self-contained gifted & talented class; middle school science & health; high school biology & physical science; lower level (100 – 200 level) undergrad intro. biology for both majors & non-majors, animal science (in an ag dept.), a course called “The Cell & Heredity,” & a GED prep course; and Chordate Zoo & Aquatic Arthropods & Vertebrates at the 300 – 400 level. I have also been an academic department head & school principal. I have a Masters of Arts in Teaching & a Masters in Ed. Admin. I’m not sure how effective of a teacher I was but I’m certainly experienced at it.

    I’ll tell you one thing: no amount of $$$ or perks could lure me back into a public school classroom under the sick political climate we have in the US today. Nor would I send any kids or grandkids of mine to the public schools. Not so long as the emphasis on standardized testing prevails, as it has under both the Bush & Obama regimes. I refuse to participate in a system in which the smart kids can blackmail the entire school staff by threatening to stay home, or put down intentionally wrong answers, on test day unless they get their way about everything. Such a system is just plain stupid and no one should expect anything besides stupidity to be the product of it.

  2. #2 joemac53
    September 29, 2010

    Darwinsdog, your kids must be a lot smarter than the ones I taught for 35 years (high school math and science). They didn’t know what blackmail meant, let alone how to pull it off.
    My own kids did well in public schools. I taught all of them in at least one course. They weren’t too happy about it, but we made it through.
    One tactic that seemed to help with high-stakes tests was “Let’s do well on their stupid test, then tell them to shove it!”
    Just before I left I got to hear about “value added” criteria with some invented statistic. I was happy to be on my way out the door. Love the kids, hate the bullshit.

  3. #3 BaldApe
    September 29, 2010

    A few years ago Bill Gates was bemoaning the lack of software engineers being produced by American universities. Right after they played his speech, an unemployed software engineer called the radio station.

    IOW, the reason STEM education is promoted isn’t that there is a shortage. It’s that employers want to ensure a continued oversupply.

  4. #4 Bonnie
    September 30, 2010

    Rising Above the Gathering Storm:
    Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future published by The National Academies Press (2007) disagrees with your comment: “even as there is a scientist glut (that’s been going on since I was an undergraduate; why do you think all those quants went to Wall Street?).”

  5. #5 film izle
    October 2, 2010

    I’ll tell you one thing: no amount of $$$ or perks could lure me back into a public school classroom under the sick political climate we have in the US today. Nor would I send any kids or grandkids of mine to the public schools. Not so long as the emphasis on standardized testing prevails, as it has under both the Bush & Obama regimes. I refuse to participate in a system in which the smart kids can blackmail the entire school staff by threatening to stay home, or put down intentionally wrong answers, on test day unless they get their way about everything. Such a system is just plain stupid and no one should expect anything besides stupidity to be the product of it.

  6. #6 Barry
    October 12, 2010

    Bonnie, I’m not sure what you mean. If you think that there has not been a scientist glut, then please point to the rising salaries of people with STEM degrees.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.