Which school do you want to support?
The 1957 launch of Sputnik dented America's sense of technological supremacy. In response, America built a long-term pipeline of rocket scientists and won the race to the moon. It also invested in colleges, scholarships and educational programs. International competition has been an important spur to investment in education in America. Beneath the high-profile space race with the USSR, the progress of science and technology in the marketplace gradually changed the world. Japan lost World War II and was never a participant in the space race, but found its niche in the postwar economy, beginning with innovations such as transistor radios and cheap motorcycles.
As described in lesson 1.3, the economy has changed thanks to technical innovation, and the changes are global. As described in lesson 1.2, America is no longer distinctive in the level of educational success that its students achieve in school.
So where does the future lie?
Today's students will drive tomorrow's breakthroughs, if they are ready. Unfortunately, despite its high-tech reputation, California has lagged other states in science education, ranking in the bottom five states in the nation in 2011.
Things may be changing. In 2013, the California State Board of Education adopted new standards for science education, known as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). (Although it might be tempting to pronounce this abbreviation "noogies," it would be terribly unscientific-sounding. The shortest abbreviation in spoken use appears to be "NextGen Science.")
As with the Common Core standards, a consortium of states developed the new science standards. California was a lead participant among the 26 states involved, but rolling out changes in standards is a significant undertaking that requires new learning materials and training for teachers. The State Board called for student testing based on the new standards to begin in 2018-19.
The NextGen science standards blend scientific disciplines with concepts of technology and engineering, defining eight science and engineering practices, seven "crosscutting concepts," and 44 disciplinary core ideas. Paul Anderson, a science teacher, has created a series of videos about the standards to help explain their purpose, structure, and usefulness for teachers.
Today's educational investments in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (collectively known as "STEM" investments) will play a key role in the shape of tomorrow's economy. America’s schools have fallen dramatically behind other countries that have emphasized preparing students for work in STEM fields. Despite its high-tech reputation, California students do no better than most in these subject areas.
In 2010 as part of the economic stimulus package that followed the Great Recession, the Race to the Top program offered states the opportunity to compete for federal grant funding. California failed in its bid to win these funds partly because the judges felt the application lacked a coherent plan to make STEM education more effective.
This is, to say the least, a multi-faceted challenge.
Math (the “M” in STEM) creates the educational foundation for the other three disciplines. Of course it is routinely characterized as one of the “basic” school subjects. It’s also an area where California lags most other states according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
State officials hope that California’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards will help improve students’ math performance. In comparison to how math was taught for more than a decade under the old standards, the new ones focus more deeply on fewer topics. This “less is more” idea is consistent with mathematics instruction in countries that are doing far better in the STEM areas.
In the area of math, as in English language arts, the Common Core emphasizes students’ development of “habits of mind” in tandem with subject matter content. The documentation of the standards label these “mathematical practices” in which students will increasingly develop expertise throughout their years in school.
The Common Core Mathematics Practices
Wondering how this kind of content can be introduced to young students? This video series can help:
For years, California officials, opinion leaders, educators, and parents debated whether students should take Algebra 1 in 8th grade and how much math is enough in high school. The transition to the Common Core is changing the nature of this conversation about algebra. First, the standards implicitly raise expectations, aiming for all students to successfully complete Algebra 2 (or the equivalent). They also suggest a variety of math course configurations that would enable students to get to an advanced level in math before graduation. More than previously, however, the state is leaving decisions about graduation requirements to local districts and communities.
Compelling evidence suggests that the state should focus more on early math instruction
At the same time, mastering algebra doesn’t just happen. Compelling evidence suggests that the state should focus more on early math instruction. More students succeed when elementary teachers, and even preschool teachers, have stronger backgrounds and skills in teaching math to the youngest children.
In 2013, California adopted a curriculum framework to accompany the new standards. The framework will guide school districts in developing new approaches to the math instruction based on the Common Core, including their selection of math textbooks and other instructional materials based on the new standards.
Math concepts build on one another. It is important to get the sequence right; if a student doesn't advance when ready, the missed opportunity permanently affects his or her success. The Noyce Foundation put a spotlight on "math misplacements" in an influential report in 2010, establishing that large numbers of students of color and students in poverty were being made to repeat algebra in ninth grade, even if they passed it in eighth grade. This finding led to passage of SB359 (Ed Code 51224.7 when active) in 2015 to address the problem.
Many of the challenges involved in teaching math are human ones, such as recruiting and retaining teachers with the necessary subject knowledge and charisma. The STEM Teacher Drought, a report from EdTrust West, finds that African American, Latino, and low-income students in California have less access to STEM learning opportunities than their more advantaged peers, and they experience worse academic outcomes in STEM subjects.
Attentive and prepared teachers can present a student with the right challenge at the right time, but it is difficult to do so for many students at once. The Khan Academy and other online learning platforms are showing great promise partly because they create individualized challenges for students, making personalized learning possible. Students can take a lesson focused on a specific skill or problem and repeat it until they feel confident. (Note: In April 2011 Khan Academy became a Full Circle Fund grant recipient.)
Science and engineering education stands to benefit from individualized computer-assisted learning as well, if only because achieving mastery in these fields requires pairing competent instruction with clear problem sets. But there is a difference between reading about spectrography and actually firing up a Bunsen burner to sleuth the elemental content of a mystery substance.
Real tech jobs are multidisciplinary. Designing a manufacturing solution, for example, involves art, craft, teamwork, communication, project management, and problem solving. It almost certainly involves use of a spreadsheet and some kind of visual design tool. These sorts of varied skills are not easy to introduce without the right tools in the room and, crucially, a teacher with the right skills. The California STEM Learning Network (CSLM) supports partnerships throughout California working on these issues. (As a side note, when an acronym is used inside another acronym you just know it has either become universal or it has jumped the shark.)
Arts advocates have worked to add the arts to conversations about STEM by adding the letter A (for arts) to the acronym, making it "STEAM."
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