STEMbeats Blog

Do US Schools Demand Too Much?

April 4, 2011

Depending on whom you ask, American youth are all loafing or all working themselves into the ground.

Two recent films about US schools pretty much sum up the two positions. Two Million Minutes portrayed even our best schools as posh holding pens for idle young people. More recently, Race to Nowhere painted them as pressure cookers that drive students to nervous breakdown.

Jay Mathews at The Washington Post takes a more nuanced approach. There is "harmful academic pressure on students in some college-conscious home." There are indeed some tiger mothers and fathers who, in league with schools, push students too far. But is this a national epidemic, as Race to Nowhere suggests?

Mathews isn't buying it. He cites data that teens in US devote 3 1/2 hours a day to TV and 42 minutes a day to homework. He points to the many hard-working teachers who sorely wished their students felt a bit more pressure to do well. And he notes that the problems that bedevil schools for the wealthy are worlds apart from problems that schools in poor communities face.

It's never a good idea to paint all US schools with a single broad brush. That said, as we compare our students with students in some of the top performing countries, can we really conclude that all or even most of them are being asked to clear too high a bar?


In Schools, Those who Need the Most Get the Least

April 3, 2011

The students who most need our best teachers are least likely to get them. A new study of teachers in 10 school districts finds that schools serving the wealthiest students have the highest share of effective English Language Arts and math teachers. (The study defined effective teachers as teachers whose students made the greatest gains on state tests.*)

Almost 30 percent of the top middle school math teachers were in the wealthiest** 20 percent of schools. In one district, the numbers were far more serious. A whopping 62 percent of the most effective teachers were in the wealthiest schools, and a mere 6 percent were in the poorest.**

Dismaying as they are, such inequities shouldn't really surprise us. A report published last year found that math classes in low-income schools are twice as likely as those in high-income schools to be taught by teachers with neither a major nor a certification in the field.

Yet such qualifications can be mere proxies for actual effectiveness. The newer study attempts to gauge teachers' success by measuring how much their students actually learn.

A word of caution: Critics of such studies argue that the tests themselves are flawed, and that estimates of teachers' effectiveness are very imprecise. Proponents, on the other hand, claim that we have no better way of measuring teachers' effect in the classroom.

But there's a further complication we don't often hear about: Good teachers might not be good no matter where they go, no matter what students they teach. Even if we could simply reshuffle the deck and send the "best" teachers from our wealthiest schools to our poorest schools, would those top teachers still do as well under such new conditions? That's not clear, though at least one study is trying to come up with some answers.

In all, we can be quite sure that students who need the most help are often least likely to get it. Big differences in teachers' pay, training, background--and maybe even their effectiveness--stack the deck against children in low-income schools.

We have to confront that problem head on.

* The study defined "effective" teachers as the top 20 percent as measured by their students' growth on state tests.

** The "wealthiest" schools in the study were actually the 20 percent of schools with the lowest share of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch. The "poorest" were the 20 percent with the highest share of such students. The study itself did not refer to "wealthy" or "poor" schools.


Dr. Zakiah Pierre, Research Associate Extraordinaire

April 1, 2011

Check out the CENtral Science blog, which just ran a great profile of our very own Dr. Zakiah Pierre, research associate extraordinaire. Zakiah stands as living proof of our conviction that a background in science can prepare you for many different jobs. Zakiah recently got her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Illinois. Rather than become a “bench chemist,” she opted to pursue her long-standing passion for work that allows her to “pave the way for our future engineers and scientists.” Her research here at CTEq helps us keep a bead on the most important issues and trends in STEM learning.*

Zakiah’s long-term goal? She plans to start a middle school that focuses on math and science. You can read it all here.

* "STEM" stands for science, technology, engineering and math.


Are We Telling 'Em What They Want to Hear?

March 30, 2011

Arthur Eisenkraft from UMass Boston doesn't mince words. He thinks some states are lying to kids. "They're being told they're doing all right at science," he toldThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "and how is the child supposed to know the state is allowing him to pass a test that is not the same as other students are taking around the country?"

He's referring to the fact that many state tests are creating a sort of alternate reality, a world where amost every child does just fine in math and science, thank you very much. And then there's the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tells a very different story.

Take Tennessee, for example. The state says 90 percent of its 8th graders are proficient in math. According to NAEP, only 25 percent are.

Individual students never see their NAEP scores, but the do see their results on state tests. So while most young people in this country have heard the message that U.S. students as a whole don't perform very well in math or science--NAEP tells us that much--their states tell them that they themselves are clearing the bar. So they draw a logical conclusion: "I'm OK, but all those other kids are doing terribly."

Not every state sets the bar low. Three states in particular--Massachusetts, South Carolina and Missouri--have set the bar quite high on their state tests. That's an act of real courage.


Tags: science, math

A Genius That May Have Gone Undiscovered

March 29, 2011

Last week, the Indy Star ran an uplifting story about a 12-year-old boy who can recite pi to almost 100 digits, is taking advanced science and math courses at Indiana University, and is already in line to become a professional researcher supported by grant dollars. He aspires to correct and extend Einstein's Theory of Relativity, disprove the Big Bang Theory, and fashion a theory of his own to describe the beginning of the universe.

One of the most striking aspects of the story is how close the boy came to living a life of silence and withdrawal. Diagnosed early on with autism, he did not speak at all for his first few years. His parents remained devoted to him and, with the help of experts, drew out and nourished his genius. (Doctors now feel that he has Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism.) When he was still in elementary school, he began to withdraw again--a sign of boredom that prompted his parents to enroll him in college.

In less fortunate children, disengagement is often misread as a sign of laziness or lack of ability. How often does ability go unrecognized?


Tags: math, science