Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Making all young Americans "STEM Capable"

I wanted to call readers' attention to a new report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Institute for Advanced Study called "The Opportunity Equation." This report takes a broad look at math and science education in the US, sets a number of goals, and makes recommendations.

There's some interesting food for thought. The big goal is that all young Americans should be "STEM capable" -- that is, capable of choosing science, technology, engineering and math careers if they so choose. At least one survey found that young people are quite interested in such topics, but the proportion who believe they have the skills to enter these professions has no basis in reality.

Some of the recommendations for pursuing that goal are pretty boiler plate (we should have a national call to action! The public, alas, grows weary of such calls).

Others are more interesting. For instance, the report calls for common and fewer standards. One complaint of math education, at least, is that American schools hit dozens of topics each year in a shallow fashion and then repeat them the next year. Better to delve deep into a few and then move on. The report also calls for more rigorous math tracks that feature data analysis and statistics as opposed to calculus as the end point. In many schools, there is one "college prep" math track that leads to calculus, which is definitely useful, but all students need to know statistics and data analysis to have scientific and math literacy. Just because you don't plan to study calculus doesn't mean your math classes should be easy.

There are some good ideas about alternative certification programs for math and science teachers, and using scholarships and pay incentives to keep them in the classroom. Given that math teachers are in much higher demand than English teachers, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to pay them the same amount. And yet, most schools do. Net result? A math teacher shortage. Math for America is one innovative program that gets around this by paying math teachers more out of private funds. The report calls for more research on teacher effectiveness, to invest in cyberlearning, to make better use of universities and museums in communities, and to close and replace failing schools.

Unfortunately, when it comes to gifted education, though, the report doesn't deliver as much as one might hope. In the opening sections, the report states that we should be "providing opportunities for the most successful students in math and science to accelerate beyond what is traditionally available in high school." Yes, we should!

Unfortunately, none of the recommendations in the executive summary, which is all the vast majority of people are going to read, deal concretely with acceleration, telescoping, sending kids to college math classes early, giving advanced students the opportunity to do real science research in college labs, etc.

This is a missed opportunity, because while I definitely think it's a nice idea to have all young people be STEM capable, the reality remains that the big innovations are going to come, largely, from students in the top 10%. Many of these kids are already STEM capable, but they are not performing nearly at the level of students in some other rich countries.

So here's what I would have written as the key goals: All young Americans should be STEM capable, and the top 10% of American K-12 students should outperform the top 10% in all other countries.

In a flat and largely free world, we can no longer bank on the top 10% from other places coming here for college or graduate school and staying. Having a truly exceptional elite -- as well as solid preparation for everyone else -- is the true key to prosperity in the future.

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