STEMbeats Blog

Will Our High Achievers Save Us?

April 25, 2011

We often hear that, though the U.S. lags behind many other countries in its students’ math performance, we have a healthy share of high achievers that puts us on par with those other high flying countries. Is that true?

According to a recent study (PDF), not so much. A trio of researchers compared the percentage of high achievers in the U.S. to that in other industrialized nations. They found that, even on that measure, we perform nearer the bottom of the than the top.

Some will object that our student population is much more diverse than that of high-flying countries, which might drag down our results. What happens when we focus only on students who are most likely to do well—say, students who have at least one parent who attended college? While our results get a bit better, even then we fall behind 14 other industrialized nations. And that’s an unfair fight, because we’re comparing a fairly privileged group in our own population with all students in those other countries.

So we can’t really take solace in our high achievers after all.


Time to Raise the Bar

April 21, 2011

The data that many states publish about how their students are doing in math and science just don’t add up. While most states report that the majority of their students are proficient in math, for example, other data tell a very different story. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress(NAEP), which sets a consistent bar for students in all states, rates only 38 percent of 4th graders and 33 percent of 8thgraders proficient or advanced in math. And NAEP scores are not where they need to be if American students are to keep pace with their peers worldwide.

This week, a group of leading chief executives sent letters to all 50 governors and the DC Mayor urging them to tell the difficult truth about student performance in their states. They also sent another message: We’ve got your back.

Each letter to a governor came with a brief “Vital Signs” report on the condition of math and science learning in that governor’s state. The reports offer real cause for concern. For example, the data show that many 4th and 8th graders seldom carry out or write about science projects, that many math teachers lack an undergraduate major or minor in math, that most states set low passing scores on content licensure tests for elementary teachers, and that few students take challenging Advanced Placement tests or make it through college. 

CEOs are also encouraged by good news. NAEP math scores have risen over the past 15 years. Some states, like Massachusetts and Missouri, have maintained high expectations for students. Others, like Michigan, New York, Oregon and Tennessee, have been raising the passing scores on their state math tests. And now forty-three states have joined forces to create a common set of clear and demanding academic content standards in English and math. All of those states have also joined consortia to create tests that align with those standards. This progress is a testament to the hard work and courage of educators and state leaders across the country. Similar work is underway in science.

But the CEOs recognize that there could be trouble ahead. If states follow through on strong standards and tests that set a high bar, then they can expect student pass rates to drop suddenly.  That could lead to outside pressure to back down. CEOs say they will stand by state leaders as they hold the line on standards.

They will also stand by state leaders as those leaders do the hard work of giving schools the tools they need to help students clear a higher bar. After all, high expectations are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for preparing students to meet the demands of a global age.  If teachers don’t get the training, support and materials they need to teach to the high standards, then higher standards will put us on a road to nowhere.  

Even as they keep an eye on states, CTEq CEOs will also hold themselves to account. Together, our companies spend more than half a billion dollars a year on STEM learning opportunities for teachers and PreK-12 children. Our CEOs recognize that some of this money is not having much of an impact, so they will judge their investments against a set of principles for effective philanthropy. They will also use the Vital Signs reports to see where their philanthropy and advocacy for STEM learning can have the greatest impact.

Change the Equation will continue supporting states in the years ahead. Going forward, we will release a second, more robust set of Vital Signs reports with the most complete state-by-state data ever assembled on STEM learning. The reports will further extend our knowledge of where states are making gains, where they have work to do, and how they can prepare many more students to thrive in a global economy. Real improvement depends on this kind of honest accounting.

Much progress has been made across the country, but such progress will be fragile indeed if we do not stiffen our spines against the temptation to lower the bar.


Tags: math, science, standards

Rebels with a Cause

April 17, 2011

What do the youth uprisings in the Middle East have to do with efforts to raise math scores in the US? If you ask Nicholas Kristof, quite a lot. His Saturday column in the New York Times presents youth movements as the key to social change. How? They put rebellion to very good use.

Kristof uses recent tobacco campaigns to illustrate his point. Teen smoking surged amidst all the goody-goody campaigns through the 70s and 80s. Telling kids not to smoke because it's bad for them is merely an invitation to rebellion. "Oh yeah? Just watch me!"

But a campaign that invited students to stand up to authority--tobacco companies, for example--had much more success. Young people themselves put together a series of ads featuring teens making prank calls to ad agencies promoting cigarettes. One particularly cutting example: Would they accept an award for killing high numbers of teens? Kristof reports that, in states where these ads ran, teen smoking rates plummeted. 

Then he gets to the subject of math. He describes a famous program designed by Uri Treisman, "an extraordinarily successful effort to improve the performance of black college students in calculus. Started at the University of California, Berkeley, after black students there earned an average grade of D+ in calculus, it puts black and Hispanics into small groups to provide peer support, and participants by some measures now outperform white and Asian students."

The program was indeed a big success, but it's hard to see where rebellion comes into the picture. The power of student groups and peer support seem clear, but where's the object of the students' disdain? Kristof seems to lose the thread here--unless I'm missing something.

Still, his big idea is intriguing. Can we get teens to rebel against the very forces that drag them down in math and science? How would we do it?


Tags: math, science

Words of Wisdom from Woz

April 10, 2011

Steve Wozniak, known to his friends (and everyone else) as "Woz," wowed Lucas Mearian from Computer World with his theory of learning. Woz has earned his chops as a commentator on schools. After co-founding Apple with that other Steve, he taught fifth grade computer science for eight years.

Like many other tech pioneers, he worries that schools aren't designed to foster the next generation of innovators. "A really innovative person is known for something that usually took an awful lot of thinking, maybe even over years, and a lot of development in a laboratory putting it together and getting it to work," he said at a recent conference. "And it's new and it's different. And it's not something you read about in a book." Math or science classes in schools are often at odds with that spirit of innovation, he argues.

First, Wozniak criticizes the push for right answers in such classes, which can stunt divergent or critical thinking. In that, he's not alone. (Transformative ideas seldom arise from the "right" answer.)

But his take on testing is pretty compelling. Here's how Mearian reports it: "The learning cycle between what is taught and when a student is tested on it is far too short, [Wozniak] proclaimed. Short learning-testing cycles, he said, are nothing like the projects that technology innovators are afforded in real life."

That, too, is not necessarily a new criticism of what's going on in schools. But when Woz says it, people should listen.


Will Rio Build this Magnificent Tower for the 2016 Olympics?

April 6, 2011

Will this magnificent structure greet visitors to the 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro? That would certainly be very cool. It would be an observation tower, a waterfall, and even a source of energy. Solar energy gathered by day would power pumps to keep the waterfall flowing at night. The waterfall, in turn, would drive turbines and create more energy.

If we're to believe some bloggers, the tower is practically a fait accompli. It will start rising from the brazilian shores in no time.

Not so fast, says Brett Christensen. The "Solar City Tower" is just a proposal submitted by a firm from Zurich. Here's how the head of the firm describes it:

We don't have any confirmation from the local authorities so far and don't know if this project will ever happen! Therefore the design is in a very early stage and we are facing lots of technical problems. Even though we have done some research in this field, a solid cost estimation or an energy consumption of this building is not possible at the moment.

The description of how the building would work does seem a tad far-fetched. Still, it's a gorgeous concept and would be a stunning addition to the Rio coast.