STEM Beats - math

Putting a Price on Elementary Math

October 12, 2017

Take a close look at the following chart. It conveys some bad, but not surprising, news about math education in elementary schools.

Students who aspire to elementary teaching face low scores & salaries

Students who are most likely to succeed in college math are most likely to plan majors in fields like engineering, computer science, or medicine, which lead to high-paying STEM jobs. No surprise there. Those who aspire to elementary teaching, by contrast, are among the lowest-paid professionals on the list, and most have a shaky foundation in math.

That spells trouble for elementary school children, whose grasp of math is unlikely to exceed that of their teachers. Elementary math skills are after all among the most important predictors of success in high school.

If our elementary teachers remain near the bottom of the salary and math achievement scales, can we expect our students to be first in the world?

Tags: math, teachers

Back to School: Do Schools and Teachers Have the Support They Need?

August 24, 2017

TV ads and news stories featuring parents and their children buying school supplies herald the close of summer just as surely as shorter days and falling temperatures do. These images tend to convey hope and optimism: children fully equipped for a fresh start in a new year. The reality, however, is less rosy.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that many parents cannot easily afford school supplies. Even students lucky enough to start the year will full backpacks will too often enter schools where teachers lack the supplies, materials, and support they need to teach. As we start a new school year, we should keep a few of our recent STEMtistics in mind.

Schools lack lab supplies, a problem most likely to afflict students of color:

Science labs and supplies are even scarcer in elementary schools, especially in those that enroll the most low-income students:

 

Teachers say the lack the resources to teach math and science—and, again, poor students get the short end of the stick:

These data are troubling at a time when dozens of states have ratcheted up their math and science standards. Schools and teachers need all the support they can get to lift students to these standards, and it’s not clear that enough help is on the way.

There are some encouraging signs, however. A new brief from Chiefs for Change highlights states such as Massachusetts and New York that give teachers strong teaching materials aligned to new standards--while respecting local authority and teachers' autonomy over what they teach. Programs like ASSET STEM Education and the Amgen Biotech Experience offer supplies and equipment--together with teacher professional development--to prepare schools for new science standards.

Yet, as the Chiefs for Change brief suggests, these examples are the exceptions that prove the rule. It's high time to learn from them.

Tags: science, math, teachers

Dropping the Algebra Requirement: a Solution, or a Surrender?

August 8, 2017

The Cal State system, which enrolls almost half a million California students, will no longer require them to pass Intermediate algebra. The decision may have been necessary, but it raises unsettling questions about the prospects of a diverse STEM workforce.

It’s reasonable to see Cal State's move as a simple case of education Realpolitik. Too many students get stuck in the bottleneck of intermediate algebra, a remedial course that delays their progress, drains their bank accounts, and raises dropout rates—all without conferring college credit.

Such august organizations as The Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, and Jobs for the Future have endorsed the move, arguing that other math courses are more appropriate for students who don’t plan to major in STEM fields. Their logic is compelling: Why uphold the idea of intermediate algebra for all when it stands between so many students and college graduation?

And yet the move risks exacerbating the very problems that forced administrators’ hands in the first place. If past is prologue, many poor and minority students will avoid intermediate algebra rather than fail it.* The Cal State System’s change could effectively codify the informal sorting mechanisms that have long kept those students out of STEM fields.

Cal State’s move could also send a message to high schoolers, their parents, and their schools that algebra is too hard for some students--and not that important, anyway. Poor and minority teens, many of whom have never met anyone in a STEM field, may well take that message to heart. If so, they are essentially taking themselves out of contention for many of the nation’s highest-paying careers.

This is not a call for Cal State to uphold the principle of algebra for all at the expense of the many thousands who cannot complete the course. High ideals don’t amount to much if they don’t offer real help to real people. Rather, the end of algebra for all in so many colleges and universities underscores the urgent need to expand math education opportunities in K-12.  

Too many poor and minority students face barriers in their communities and schools that all but destine them to opt out of intermediate algebra. Many start Kindergarten behind, and their elementary and middle school teachers say they lack support to teach math. Teachers are less likely to recommend high-achieving minority students for gifted programs or algebra in eighth grade. Poor and minority students are much more likely to attend schools that don’t offer advanced math. Indeed, of the roughly 41,000 black and Latino high schoolers who had the potential to succeed on AP math and science tests in 2014, only half actually took them.

It may be necessary—at least for now—to surrender to the harsh realities that drove Cal State’s decision. Yet we still need to uphold challenging standards in K-12. Ensure that teachers of math have the support they need. Give students more and better counseling about the courses they need to take for different careers. Help schools prepare students for AP classes and tests. Coax more STEM majors into the classroom, particularly in poor schools. The list goes on.

Yes, this is a tall order, but the decision to drop math requirements should never be a signal that we’re giving up on preparing every high school graduate to pursue a STEM degree in college if she chooses to do so. All too often, we limit, rather than expand, students' options.

Tags: minorities, math, standards

Do teachers have the resources they need in math? Troubling trends

June 13, 2017

Amidst the current avalanche of political news, it’s easy to forget that K-12 academic standards were recently a topic for fiery debate at statehouses and dinner tables across the country. But let’s not forget one of that debate’s biggest lessons: Standards could founder if teachers lack the tools and support to reach them.

New York State, which is still feeling the aftershocks of the debate, offers a compelling illustration of this lesson. The state adopted Common Core State Standards in 2010 and began implementing the standards in 2012. The state’s teachers union withdrew their support for the new standards in spring 2013, arguing that teachers lacked teaching materials and time to prepare students for tough state tests keyed to the new standards. The state’s plans to evaluate teachers using the results of those tests simply fanned the flames.

Survey data from The Nation’s Report Card reflect the dramatic decline in New York teachers’ satisfaction:

Fewer teachers say they have the support they need to teach math--chart

Between 2011 and 2013, the share of students whose teachers said they had “all” or “most” of the resources they needed to teach math tumbled by a stunning 24 percentage points.

Teachers’ discontent has had a lasting impact. Just this month, New York State is completing a review and revision of its state standards. State leaders backed down on much of their standards-based reform agenda after teachers found common cause with parents, who rebelled against challenging and time-consuming state tests tied to those standards.

The irony here is that New York State was a trailblazer in creating math curriculum and materials aligned to the new standards states adopted across the country. In 2012, the state funded the development of what would later become Eureka Math, which has become the nation’s most widely adopted math curriculum, and one of the most highly rated. 

That help came too late for teachers who would be accountable for student test results so soon after tougher standards came on the scene--and before the ink was dry on the new curricula. The causes of New York’s anti-standards revolt are complex, but teachers can quickly sour on standards if they lack the support they need.  

New York State offers an object lesson for the United States. While New York’s trendline in the chart above is alarming, the national trend is also unsettling. The percentage of U.S. students whose teachers feel they have the resources they need dropped steadily but significantly between 2011 and 2015. Almost one third of U.S. eighth-graders in 2015 were in math classrooms with teachers who said they lacked support. Advocates for standards should watch this trend carefully when new data come out for 2017.

Schools across the country are still adjusting to more demanding expectations for what their students should know and be able to do. The public debate over the standards may have ebbed, but the need to give teachers the resources and materials they need has not diminished one bit. 

Tags: standards, math, teachers

New Vital Signs Data: Access to Challenging STEM Courses

May 4, 2017

Do high schoolers in your state have access to challenging courses in math and science? Change the Equation has just released new data on high school students' access to classes like calculus or physics. We found that few states offer anything approaching universal access to such courses. Millions of students attend high schools that do not even offer those courses. As is so often the case, students of color fare worst.

Nationally, one in four Latino students and nearly one third of black high schoolers attend schools that did not offer calculus in the 2013/14 school year. American Indian students faced even worse odds. Access to physics classes was only moderately better.

Students in schools that do not offer calculus and physics

Many students across the country couldn't take a calculus of physics class even if they wanted to. That's a problem. Watch this space in the coming weeks for more analysis of this problem and how states can tackle it.

In the meantime, head over to our Vital Signs website to see where your state stands.

Tags: math, science, standards

Pages