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.