Change the Equation's blog

A Tale of Two Factory Workers

January 12, 2012

Here's a fascinating story Adam Davidson tells in this month's Atlantic

Two smart young people’s lives take very different paths, even though neither has a four-year degree and both work in the same South Carolina factory. The first gets pregnant in high school and drops out of college to care for her child. She gets a “Level 1” job at a plant doing fairly rote work assembling fuel injectors. Further training just isn’t in the cards for her, a single mother living on a small paycheck. The second also drops out of 4-year college, but he transfers to a community college Machine Tool Technology program, where he studies a lot of math. As a "Level 2" worker, he earns about 50 percent more than his Level 1 colleague does, and his future looks much brighter.

Here’s what could be in store for both of them. If she doesn’t upgrade her skills, a machine will replace her the moment it starts to cost less than she does. She’ll have trouble getting another job that matches even the low paycheck she takes home now. He, on the other hand, has the potential to rise in his job or go back to school to take his career to the next level.

Both work in a factory that bears little resemblance to what many of us imagine a factory looks like. High-tech machines do more work than people do. Those machines work with such precision that a speck of dust could throw them off, and much of the factory floor is therefore cleaner than your local ICU.

The Level 1 workers do work that machines could do just as well, but they're still cheaper than the machines are--at least, for now. The Level 2 workers, by contrast, oversee the machines. They review the machines' output and continually adjust their quality. One mistake, and they could destroy equipment that's very expensive indeed.

So what kinds of skills separate the two factory workers? Our Level 2 worker studied algebra, trigonometry, calculus and computer programming. He plans to learn more about metallurgy and

Tags: technology, engineering, jobs & workforce

Low-Hanging Fruit: Students Who are Interested, but not Proficient, in STEM

January 10, 2012

Here's the glass-half-empty version of our country's future prospects in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Only about 30 percent of 12th graders are interested STEM careers. Of those, just over half are good enough in math to do well in college. (You do the math).

Now for the glass-half-full version: Fourteen percent of 12th graders are interested in STEM careers even though they're not proficient in math. By beefing up those students' skills, we could dramatically boost the numbers of US students pursuing STEM degrees and STEM careers.

The Business Higher Education Forum (BHEF), which released these data, takes the glass-half-full approach:

STEM-interested, but not math proficient students represent some of the low-hanging fruit of the STEM education pipeline. In particular, using new learning tools to accelerate math achievement during the latter part of high school could move considerable numbers of students into STEM education and the STEM workforce, increasing the diversity of both.

You can read BHEF's full research brief here.

Tags: math

Maine's Challenge Is the Nation's Challenge

January 3, 2012

The demand for skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is hardly limited to Silicon Valley. Maine might not seem like much of a tech hotspot, but The Bangor Daily News (BDN) reports that it faces a real shortage of STEM workers in the coming decades.

The BDN quotes a science and technology specialist in the state's Department of Education who predicts a 50 percent jump in STEM jobs by 2018. Those jobs will probably pay well. A spokesman for the Maine Department of Labor notes that the state's 20,000 (or so) STEM workers get paid "an average of 60 percent higher" than workers in other jobs that require the same education.

Maine also suffers from the same problem that bedevils the rest of the nation: Young people just don't seem to be lining up to seize the opportunities offered by STEM careers. A Dean at the University of Southern Maine sums up a frustration no doubt shared by peers across the country: "When I look at the opportunities out there for students in STEM, I wonder why they are not knocking down our doors."

The BDN story is not all doom and gloom. It outlines several new STEM programs and centers that promise to fuel new interest among

Tags: STEM & the states

This Guy's a Math Teacher

December 22, 2011

The sublimely inept customer service representative "Peggy" in those Discover Card ads is played by a math teacher near LA. Tudor Petrut was a well-known actor in Romania before coming to the US. He now teaches high school algebra and moonlights as "Peggy" on the small screen. His students reportedly love the Peggy schtick, and his ads have won him quite a following in the outside world (except, perhaps, among Eastern Europeans who might take exception to the fact that this 'Peggy' seems to be vaguely slavic).

The moral of this story is...well, I'm not sure. Really talented people go into math? At any rate, it's interesting to imagine Petrut in the classroom.

Hat tip: Alexander Russo.

How Is Your Local High School Doing? You Might Want to Ask Colleges

December 21, 2011

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle recently over just how many schools are failing according to No Child Left Behind. (The official, more charitable, phrase is “in need of improvement.”) The Secretary of Education said more than 80 percent would miss the mark. The Center on Education Policy, a DC think tank, looked into the matter and came up with a figure under 50 percent. The exact number may be less important than how we measure school success or failure. This has profound implications for school reform.

The current means of measuring schools' progress in No Child Left Behind, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), has few friends. Critics charge that it's complicated, statistically unsound and unhinged from reality. Is there a better way to gauge school progress?

Here's at least one possibility: See how well a school does in preparing its students for college. As a new report from the Data Quality Campaign makes clear, more and more states are able to do so. Many states now have the data to track a high school student beyond graduation. Did she enroll in some kind of post-secondary program? Did she need remediation? Did she make it to her second year? Schools want to answer these questions as they try to prepare students for college and careers.

In fact, AYP might have little to do with a school's track record in preparing students for college. A 2010 study of Florida schools found little correlation between a school's

Tags: higher education

Does Education Need a New Shock to the System?

December 19, 2011

Accountability was a shock to the American school system, writes Mark Schneider in a short paper for the Fordham Foundation. It spurred gains in math scores for more than a decade, but those scores have plateaued. Time for another shock, he argues.

Schneider chalks this pattern up to “punctuated equilibrium,” a theory borrowed from natural scientist Stephen Jay Gould via political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones. Complex systems like to remain static, the theory goes, until they are jolted into change by some big event—say, the meteor that transformed the earth’s climate and wiped out the dinosaurs. The systems lapse back into stasis until the next big jolt.

That’s what happened to our schools, Schneider suggests. He notes that Texas, which was the first state to put a strong accountability regime in place, reaped big test score gains soon thereafter—at least in math. Other states caught up when they created their own accountability systems. But Texas lost steam about 5 years ago, Schneider points out, and other states are following suit. The system has settled back into equilibrium.

So what new shocks do we need to prompt the next

Online Algebra Classes Are a Lifeline for Rural Students

December 14, 2011

Online Algebra I courses can be a lifeline for rural middle school students whose schools don't offer the course in 8th grade. A new study finds that the online courses can double students' chances of going on to more advanced classes later on.

All too many rural students don't even have the option of taking an algebra class in 8th grade. The study reports that about one in four rural middle schools does not offer algebra in 8th grade, compared to about one in five urban middle schools and about one in ten suburban middle schools. When we don't even give students the chance to get on the advanced track in middle school, we're stacking the deck against them.

The study does not attempt to answer the question of whether on-line or face-to-face

Is Your Child "Proficient" in Science? That Might Not Mean Very Much

December 7, 2011

Every state has to report what percentage of its students is proficient in science. That's a great idea--in theory. The problem is that states set the bar for proficiency--that is, the scores students need to pass the state tests--all over the map. As a result, "proficiency" doesn't necessarily mean anything. That's the major finding of a report Change the Equation released today.

Tags: science, standards

Turning Teens on to Engineering

December 6, 2011

Business leaders often find that good engineers are hard to come by, even in this tough job market. How frustrating, then, that relatively few young people choose engineering as a career. Only about a quarter of teens have even considered engineering.

How can we get more of them to give engineering a try? For starters, we can give them a better sense--or any sense--of what engineers do.

A new survey Intel conducted in collaboration with Change the Equation finds that many teens just aren't that familiar with the profession. When asked to rank a series of careers according to how much they knew about them, teens ranked engineering in the bottom half. Almost a third (29 percent) said they did not know about career opportunities in engineering. They don't know what they're missing.

The good news is that this problem is not insurmountable. More than 6 in 10 teens reported that they were more likely to consider a career in engineering after learning about the the average yearly salary: $75,000. More than half said they were more likely to consider the profession after hearing that the jobless rate for engineers is four percentage points lower than the overall national rate.

Most teens also warm to the profession when they learn about the exciting, unexpected

Tags: engineering, jobs & workforce

Poor Schools Are Getting Shortchanged

December 1, 2011

School districts often shortchange the schools that serve the lowest-income students? Why? They spend less money on teacher salaries in those schools. The students who need the most are all too often getting the least.

Researchers have long suspected this problem, but a new federal study confirms it. This isn't some nefarious plot districts carry out against their most vulnerable students. Rather, it's a structural problem. As teachers gain experience, they tend to move to schools that serve wealthier students. They earn higher salaries with more years under their belts, and that money follows them to their new schools. These inequities were hard to uncover, because districts can report teacher salaries as averages across schools.

So what to do? The Department of Education argues that it would not be expensive to set things


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