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The Myth of STEM

Another of the somewhat vague concepts currently popular here in the overly-large school district (and many other places) is STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. Subject areas that many politicians and other education experts declare American kids should studying more.

They tell us this is important since the US has a growing shortage of scientists, engineers and other so-called STEM professions. Failure to emphasize those skills in our work force will have any number of disastrous economic and social consequences. Or something like that.

But what if those claims are false? What if the STEM crisis is a myth?

That’s the thesis of a feature story in the IEEE Spectrum, a journal published by a large organization of electrical engineers. The writer says that that predictions of impending shortages of scientists and engineers are nothing new, citing statements going back almost 100 years. In addition, he’s also found many studies directly contradicting those claims.

He makes a good, well documented case that the call to add tens of thousand of new STEM degrees to the US work force may not be necessary or even productive. The article is well worth a read.1

However, does that mean the current efforts to push more STEM topics (which we are trying to morph into STEAM, adding arts to the mix) in the K12 curriculum are completely wrong?

The idea is probably no better or worse than anything else on the long list of somewhat vague, single focus ideas being pushed by ed reformers as a solution to our “failing” school system in this country.2

Certainly, as the author points out in his conclusion, more STEM couldn’t hurt. He notes that there is very much a “STEM knowledge shortage” in the US3 and it’s not necessary to push students into a degree program to improve their understanding of science and technology issues.

But I wonder, what ever happened to the original concept of K12 education, especially high school: giving students the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects, including not-STEM, before settling on one specific area to study in depth after graduation. Is it really necessary to channel kids into a career field before they are even old enough to drive?


1 The comments are also an intelligent extension to the discussion, far above the quality found on most general news and gossip sites like the Huffington Post.

2 “Failing schools” is also something of a myth, certainly when applied to every area of the country as a whole.

3 Seemingly emanating from the Texas State School Board.

Unnecessary Evil

Alfie Kohn, one of the smartest voices in the education reform discussion, has an interesting article about new research into the value of homework, one that includes a reminder of the important of reading studies carefully “rather than relying on summaries by journalists or even by the researchers themselves”.

Kohn, who literally wrote the book on the subject, the wonderful The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, starts by noting the significant lack of support for the instructional value of homework found in previous studies.

First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school.

Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn’t been particularly persuasive.

Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest — or, actually, least tenuous — with math.

This latest study focuses on math and science homework in high school, an area that Kohn says is one “where you’d be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found”.

And the result of this fine-tuned investigation? There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and “no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.”

This result clearly caught the researchers off-guard. Frankly, it surprised me, too. When you measure “achievement” in terms of grades, you expect to see a positive result — not because homework is academically beneficial but because the same teacher who gives the assignments evaluates the students who complete them, and the final grade is often based at least partly on whether, and to what extent, students did the homework. Even if homework were a complete waste of time, how could it not be positively related to course grades?

Beyond the value of homework, or the lack thereof, Kohn’s discussion of the research process itself, and especially how the researchers “reframe these results to minimize the stunning implications”, is well worth your time to read the whole article, footnotes and all.

The Right Answer

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, someone who is supposed to be a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016*, was asked in an interview “How old do you think the Earth is?”.

His answer:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

I’m also not qualified to answer a question like that but I know how to locate the best information available, so as most intelligent, non-scientists would tell you, the correct reply is “I’ll have to Google that.”

There may be “multiple theories” on the age and origins of the universe, but the only ones that should be taught in science classes are those backed by evidence, not myths and legends.


* The fact than anyone is making that assessment two weeks after the previous election is very depressing.

Challenging What Everyone Knows

In the op-ed section of the Post this morning, Alfie Kohn, one of the smartest voices in the debate about American education, challenges the myth that today’s parents coddle their kids more than ever, and as a result, those children are the most undisciplined generation in history.

It must be true since it says so in dozens of books and articles on the subject.

And, of course, there are plenty of stories about parents who refuse to set limits on their kids, and kids that are undisciplined narcissists.

Except, as Kohn notes, there are just two problems with those “what everyone knows” facts.

Social observers have been saying exactly the same thing about each generation of kids for more than a century.

And there is almost no research to support any of these claims, with what has been done largely based on questionable methodology.

In short,

There’s no evidence, then, that today’s parents are more permissive than parents of yesteryear, or that today’s young people are more narcissistic. But even if there were, no one has come close to showing that one causes the other.

Neither logic nor evidence seems to support the widely accepted charge that we’re too easy on our children. Yet that assumption continues to find favor across the political spectrum. It seems that we’ve finally found something to bring the left and the right together: an unsubstantiated knock on parents, an unflattering view of kids and a dubious belief that the two are connected.

Logic? Evidence?

When it comes to the debate over issues related to American education, it’s not surprising that both often go missing.

Five Myths About Merit Pay for Teachers

The regular Five Myths column from the Sunday opinion section of the Post addresses some statements of “truth” on the topic of merit pay popular with politicians and education “experts”.

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And the five are:

1. Merit pay has a strong track record. [That one’s not even true in business]

2. Teachers unions are the biggest barrier to merit pay. – Yes and no. But the merit pay experiments of the 1980s also failed because they were, at bottom, capricious.

3. Principals are good judges of teacher talent. [In my experience, many principals are more building and business managers than they are educators, especially in high schools.]

4. Student test scores offer a simple solution to the evaluation problem. [Crap!]

5. Teachers are most motivated by money. [More crap!]

This is far from a comprehensive assessment of the misinformation thrown around in the debates over merit pay but it’s worth a few minutes of your time.


Image: number 5 by Leo Reynolds, used under a Creative Commons license.

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