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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, technological innovation has changed the nature of work, and the changes are global. When it comes to school, kids in many other countries succeed at rates similar to America.
So where does the future lie?
Today's educational investments in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (collectively known as STEM) will play a key role in the shape of tomorrow's economy and society. America’s schools have fallen dramatically behind those in 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.
American policymakers have made some efforts to turn education toward STEM. 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.
Despite its high-tech reputation, California has consistently lagged other states in science education. The last meaningful national survey of science readiness was the 2015 NAEP exam. California's eighth graders scored in the bottom four states in the nation that reported scores, just ahead of Alabama and Mississippi.
There are reasons to expect improvement. In 2013, the California State Board of Education adopted standards for science education, known as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). (It is often called NextGen Science because the acronym is unpronounceable.) School districts slowly began taking action to make changes based on these standards.
Hear Carol and Mary discuss NextGen Science on KALW
A consortium of 26 states developed the NextGen science standards, and California was a lead participant in the effort. Rolling out changes in standards is a significant undertaking that requires new learning materials and training for teachers. Testing based on the new standards began in 2018-19.
The NextGen science standards blend scientific disciplines with concepts of technology and engineering. Paul Anderson, a science teacher, has created a series of videos about the standards to help explain their purpose, structure, and usefulness for teachers.
Math (the “M” in STEM) creates the educational foundation for the other three disciplines. It’s also an area where California lags most other states according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
In recent years, California's math scores have risen a little bit, but they're still pretty darn weak. An important shift is underway that may help over time. Like educators in many other states, California teachers have been adopting the approaches defined in the Common Core standards. These standards emphasize a deeper understanding of fewer topics than the prior standards. This “less is more” idea is consistent with mathematics instruction in countries that are doing far better in the STEM areas.
The Common Core Mathematics Practices
Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
Model with mathematics.
Use appropriate tools strategically.
Attend to precision.
Look for and make use of structure.
Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
Wondering how this kind of content can be introduced to young students? This video series can help:
For about a decade, California policy actively pushed algebra as an 8th grade course requirement, and enrollment in the course grew sharply. By 2012, about 2/3 of California's 8th graders were enrolled in algebra I, and in particular there had been significant growth in the proportion of Black and Latino students enrolled in the course.
In 2013, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to drop the 8th grade algebra requirement in order to adopt the structure and pacing of the Common Core standards. This was not an outright capitulation; many of the key concepts of basic algebra were incorporated into the Common Core standards for eighth grade math, including using the Pythagorean theorem, linear equations, exponents, and irrational numbers. California does not require> schools to provide courses in algebra before high school, though many do.
It is common for schools to offer math instruction in tracks or ability groupings for students at different levels of readiness. In 2014 San Francisco Unified School District stood this logic on its head. The district completely de-tracked its middle school classes, enrolling all students in the same courses for Grades 6, 7, and 8. Outcomes four years later appeared to strongly validate this approach. The research showed an increase in the percentage of students earning the highest possible score on 8th grade tasks, a decrease in percentage of students repeating Algebra I, and an increase in the number of students taking math courses beyond Algebra II (including groups underserved in math).
Most states in America require three or four years of math for high school graduation; only Montana, Maine and California require just two. (That's not quite as bad as it sounds — most California school districts set their own, higher graduation requirements for math.)
Compelling evidence suggests that the state should focus more on early math instruction
Mastering algebra doesn’t just happen. Compelling evidence suggests that if California is to sustain its role as a center of technology, 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.
Standards set the high-level expectations for learning, but they need additional detail to be implemented. In 2013, California adopted a curriculum framework to accompany and clarify the new standards. A curriculum framework is more specific than standards — it provides guidance and examples to help school districts and teachers think through their plans in actionable detail. The framework was set to be begin implementation in 2022.
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 the Math Placement Act (Ed Code 51224.7) in 2015 to address the problem. It required school districts to “develop and adopt, in a regularly scheduled public meeting, a fair, objective, and transparent mathematics placement policy for pupils entering grade 9.”
By the start of the 2015-16 school year, 86 percent of districts had such a policy in place. Nevertheless, many of the remaining school districts have failed to comply with the legislation. A 2019 brief released by the California School Boards Association reported that many small and rural districts were unaware of the law, or did not have enough administrators on hand to address the requirement. The brief — which is worth a look — went on to describe policies that some school districts have implemented to effectively reduce math misplacement.
To support K-12 computer science education, in 2019 California adopted the Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan, which includes training materials for educators. The framework also includes major sections on computational thinking and computer science. California has neither dedicated funding for rigorous computer science professional development or course support, nor required high schools to offer it as a subject.
Very few states require high schools to offer computer science classes or have dedicated curriculum standards for it. In California about 9 out of ten parents want their child’s school to teach computer science, yet as of 2019 only about 39% of California's high schools do so. Schools in low-income communities tend to have the most difficulty establishing computer science programs, although nonprofits sometimes step in to help reduce this disparity.
Many of the challenges involved in teaching STEM subjects are human ones, such as recruiting and retaining teachers with the necessary subject knowledge and charisma. Research from the Learning Policy Institute in 2018 revealed teacher shortages are most pronounced in certain subject areas including mathematics and science. 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. According to the same report, only 10% of elementary students engaged in “practices of science” or had hands-on instruction and labs.
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 finding favor with some teachers and parents partly because they create individualized challenges for students, making personalized learning and at-home practice possible. Students can take a lesson focused on a specific skill or problem and repeat it until they feel confident.
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 and, crucially, a teacher with the right skills. The California State PTA supports community engagement on this issue. 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."
Make Math a Family Thing. The Harvard Graduate School on Education has put together some ideas and resources for families to develop children’s mathematical learning and for educators to guide families in that process.
Encourage curiosity and experiments at home: 5 Tips for Parents from the California State PTA
Check to see if STEM is part of your district’s LCAP. Are teachers getting the training they need to implement the new science standards? The California STEM Learning Network has some tips.
Get involved at your school. What Your PTA Can Do to Promote STEM Education
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