The Case Against STEM

Listen to an education reformer for more than five minutes and you’re likely to hear about STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. Students, we are told, must study more of these topics, otherwise they will be unable to compete in the world and our economy is doomed. Or something like that.

However, a columnist for the Washington Post says that our obsession with STEM education is not only based on a “fundamental misreading of the facts”, it “puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future”.

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

The current overemphasis on STEM is largely related to standardized tests, the core of most ed reform efforts. US students generally score behind many other countries on one particular international testing program, “trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia”. STEM advocates declare that our students must be immersed in math and science in order to return the country to the top of the world heap, where we belong.

Except that the US has never been at the top of that particular world heap.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Then there’s the matter that even the companies and organizations considered most innovative want their employees to come with “skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum”.

Finally, the writer makes the case that a broad-based, liberal education – one that includes science and math in balance – would be better for both students and the country.

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers, the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.

US vs. Finland… Again

This month’s edition of the Smithsonian Magazine has an article that asks the questions Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful? Of course, the major theme of the piece is not just a profile of that country’s educational system but also comparing it with schools and students in the US, and especially our continuing efforts at “reform”.

Such international comparisons are pretty much meaningless for a variety of reasons but we seem to wallow in them anyway. So, if we’re going to play that game, what are some factors that make Finland’s schools “better”?

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians.

The article has much more and is worth a read.

However, if you really want to compare Finland and the US when it comes to the education of our children, for me the main take-away from this article is not about curriculum or testing or school competition or how teachers are paid or any of the other crap that forms the core of discussions about improving our education system.

No, it’s that Finland has a society and government that genuinely cares about and supports the well-being of all kids and their families.

And the US, not so much and getting worse.

Failing to Make The Connection

I’m not sure there is one but Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, is seeking a connection between mobile technology and school reform.

It’s a tenuous link at best but no more far fetched than one at the foundation of national education policy connecting college attendance for the vast majority of students and the country’s economic health.

William J. Mathis, managing director of the nonprofit National Eduction Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education, wrote recently on this blog that 70 percent of U.S. jobs require only on-the-job training, 10 percent require technical training, and 20 percent require a college education.

He wrote further that while the Obama administration insists that future jobs will require much higher and universal skills, the Washington-based Brookings Institution says that the country’s job structure profile is likely not to change much in the near future, and the proportion of middle skill jobs (plumbers, electricians, health care, police officers, etc.) will remain robust.

Then there’s the larger misconception that education quality (in the form of international standardized test scores) is directly connected to America’s economic success.

America’s reclaimed dominance in mobile technology — and its ability to economically compete — don’t have much to do with international tests, or, for that matter, school reform that is obsessed with measuring schools, students and teachers on standardized tests that weren’t designed for such assessment.

It’s time that our leaders stop saying otherwise.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if that’s going to happen any time soon.

 

The Myths of International Comparisons

The Brookings Institution, one of our famous Washington DC “think tanks”, has published it’s annual report on American education.

And they have a few items that don’t quite support the “were getting trounced by the rest of the civilized world” view of international comparisons.

Two myths of international assessments are debunked—the first, that the United States once led the world on international tests of achievement. It never has. The second myth is that Finland leads the world in education, with China and India coming on fast. Finland has a superb school system, but, significantly, it scores at the very top only on PISA, not on other international assessments. Finland also has a national curriculum more in sync with a “literacy” thrust, making PISA a friendly judge in comparing Finnish students with students from other countries. And what about India and China? Neither country has ever participated in an international assessment. How they would fare is unknown.

Other parts of the report are very critical of the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition as well as the testing instruments used to assess student progress by most of the “winners”.

Is this the final word on… well, anything?

No.

Just one more piece of evidence that education is a complex process, comparing student learning in two different states is hard enough, and international comparisons are even more unreliable.