Monday, March 24, 2014

A few more thoughts on STEM

Although I have not thought of myself as particularly mathy since about 7th grade, I want to be clear that my position on STEM education does not reflect a general dislike of math or science itself. The Dad is a software programmer. My father, Grandpa Texas, is a nuclear engineer. I get that having people with these skills is important and that people who have these skills often do important work.
But I don't think they are important to the level of core subject matter. I don't think they are important to the detriment of other subjects or interests in the elementary grades. And, unfortunately, in CPS, focusing on STEM will be to the detriment of other subjects. The reality of an underfunded system such as CPS means that a focus on STEM necessarily means a subtraction of other art, music, world language, or social studies. Because with $4400/student, schools can't hire a classroom teacher and an engineering teacher and an art teacher. And the reality of a heavily prescribed system such as CPS means that a focus on STEM means the detriment of other subjects because there isn't time in the day/week to include a block of literacy, a block of math, 30 minutes of P.E. and 40 minutes for lunch/recess.
And I want to be clear that I know that the perceived lack of qualified workers that is driving public policy on increased STEM education is fake. I went looking for the job growth statistic that CPS referenced in its press release. I could not find it within the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, but I did reference to a lower number--778,300. Said the report, “Computer and mathematical occupations are projected to add 778,300 new jobs between 2010-2020.” Incidentally, this job growth makes this area the 6th fastest growing major occupational group, but it’s ranked 12th out of 22 occupational groups because of it’s relatively small size.
The BLS also reported that heatlhcare support is projected to grow by 35.9% in 2020. The Boomer lobby is slacking on that one. Or perhaps even they are disgusted by the thought of their grandchildren sliding back into their own parents' job prospects. According to the same report, community and social service occupations are expected to grow at a rate of 24.2% by 2020. Where is the lobby of social workers? Oh wait….

My original guest-blogger post hit the Internet on Tuesday. I didn't realize it would be a primer to The Atlantic's "The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage," published the very next day. (In the fantasy world where print journalism still exists, I would make an ideal Atlantic writer.) As writer Michael Teitelbaum reported about the STEM shortage, "U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more."

In light of this more factual reporting of the STEM landscape, it makes statements like Christopher Emdin's even more maddening. A recent PBS article quoted Emdin as saying, "Our STEM jobs continue to go unfilled, and our young people refuse to be scientists and engineers."
Emdin was speaking in response to last week's DoE release of civil rights data, a report that showed unequal education. From PBS: "Yet the department found that there was a “significant lack of access” to core classes like algebra, geometry, biology, and chemistry for many students. That lack of access was particularly striking when it came to minorities.." I think of these classes as foundational. They should be in the core curriculum at all schools. I think Emdin's assertion that there are unfilled STEM jobs is false, but the inequality in education offered to minorities is well-documented.

In fact, for those interested in the issue of segregation on science education and other subjects, there is an upcoming lecture at DePaul's College of Education. From the email: Lecture and Discussion with Richard Rothstein and Patricia Fron, Why Are Schools Still Segregated and What We Can Do About It, Monday, April 7 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Room (TBA)

Richard Rothstein is a Research Associate of the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law, a widely published author and lecturer on education policy and the national education columnist for the New York Times from 1999 through 2002. 60 years after Brown v Board, our schools continue to be segregated. Rothstein looks at the intersection of school segregation and residential segregation. He argues that " Too quickly forgetting twentieth century history, we’ve persuaded ourselves that the hobbling residential isolation of low-income black children is only “de facto,” the accident of economic circumstance, personal preference, and private discrimination. But unless we re-learn how residential segregation is “de jure,” resulting from explicit, racially conscious and motivated public policies, implemented by federal, state, and local governments, we have little hope of remedying school segregation that flows from neighborhood racial isolation."

Patricia Fron, the co-chair of the policy committee of the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance will be a respondent to Rothstein, discussing some of the findings in their recent report, Chicago From Home to School: Why Segregation Persists and Current Reforms May Only Make Things Worse.
For more information, and to RSVP please contact Diane Horwitz at dhorwit1 at

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CPS Brings STEM Curriculum to District

This post first appeared on March 18, 2014 at

What’s up with CPS’s decision to introduce and ramp up STEM curriculum within district schools, as it announced yesterday in a press release

On its face, the district’s decision to add computer science as a core subject to city high schools seems like a good one. It’s not all that different than earlier administrators’ addition of typing classes to the curriculum. 

What is the district really trying to achieve by introducing a curriculum that is heavy on science, technology, engineering, and math? Is it trying to get ahead of a projected shortage of qualified candidates in those fields? Does it reflect a need at U.S. colleges and universities to matriculate students who are able to work at advanced levels of math and science, at a rigor that would make them able to “compete” with their global counterparts? 

What is driving this policy? 

Despite the persistent idea that our schools are not preparing students for the kinds of jobs the market offers, a look to historical STEM trends suggests that the renewed emphasis on STEM within CPS may be another manufactured crisis. 

Back in 1997, a Stanford-educated researcher named Gerald Bracey suggested that the National Science Foundation may have started what could now be traced to the current “inadequacy” in STEM education. When Sandia Labs undertook a study of the issue in the late 1980s, they concluded that the biggest risk to education of U.S. students was the H.S. dropout rate—not the quality of STEM education or number of STEM degrees awarded. 

The biggest driver of growth in STEM competitiveness may have come in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik. Yet even Congress agrees that the percentage of postsecondary science and engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. has remained steady at 17 percent. Is there job growth to justify this kind of subject-matter emphasis? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the fastest growing occupations are largely medical and vocational—not high-tech. Will increased STEM fluency increase students’ ability to compete for jobs? Will it improve their chances at success?

Perhaps the important question is not why CPS is pursuing this policy, but what it can hope to achieve? How will a renewed emphasis on STEM education affect our children? Will they be better off for having this kind of education? Or will this policy further cream or tier an already stratified system? Who does a STEM curriculum help?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Culture of Testing at CPS (or Why I Opted Out)

Last year, I attended the Raise Your Hand coalition's community forum on the culture of testing at CPS. One outcome of the forum was More Than A Score, a newish coalition of parents who are concerned about the number of tests and assessments given in CPS as well as the purpose of the testing itself.
Last year, each of RYH's five panelists talked about his or her experience and opinions on learning and standardized testing, and then they responded to questions and comments from the audience. Noah Sobe, a professor of Cultural and Education Policy at Loyola University, spoke about the history of standardized testing, the myth or misconception that American education has "always" used tests as a gauge of teaching or learning. What we've lost in creating this culture of testing is the definition of what we want our schools to do for our children, what we want our children to learn in the process of their education. He also pointed out the differences amongst (1) teacher-designed assessment, which he said is a critical part of teaching, (2) standardized testing, and (3) high-stakes testing.

Later in the evening, there were "breakout" sessions of things we could do to prevent or arrest the standardized test momentum within CPS. That assumes that all of the attendees were there for a common purpose.  We were not. As Wendy Katten acknowledged in her opening remarks, forum attendees had different reasons for being there: (1) to gain clarity in our understanding of standardized tests; (2) to learn or understand the impact of standardized tests on our students and the system; (3) to learn how to opt your children out of standardized testing at their CPS schools.  I really only have two problems with testing and assessments. The first is the use of student growth or progress as a way to evaluate teachers. The second is testing that doesn't have a clear, demonstrable point: when data is not recognizably useful to students, parents, teachers, the school, or the District. For me, this year's ISATs are a perfect example of a test that doesn't produce useful data. I opted my children out of the test this year. I want to be clear that this wasn't a decision I made alone, or in a vacuum, or without the input and counsel of others I trust and who are knowledgeable about such things.  First, in late January, I asked our principal for information on this year's ISATs, their import to both the school and my children, and her take on things. Dear readers, she was not surprised that I was asking, nor that I had a  fair bit of necessary background information on this. Our principal, like everyone else, I suspect, is somewhat used to me being the Person with the Questions. Not surprisingly, and also not to her detriment, she didn't convince me that the soon-to-be-obsolete AYP measure was enough reason to have my children take the test. 

Then I had a serious and ongoing debate of the merits of this particular test in this particular instance at length with The Dad. The Dad's arguments for taking the ISAT were that it's good practice. Um, for what? Boredom? Waiting? Standardized tests? They have the NWEA and the STEP tests already; The Boy also took the now-defunct Scantron test; how much practice for standardized testing do they need? Also, the ISAT is a pencil-and-paper-scored-bubble-test; the only other  pencil-and-paper-scored-bubble test in the distant horizon is the ACT and it's distance doesn't provide enough reason to take the last year of the ISAT.

I also thought about the results of the test. The Boy has two years of ISATs under his belt already, so it might be interesting to see how he scored comparatively this year compared to previous years. But the state messed around with the cut scores in 2013, and changed the test again in 2014; I couldn't muster enough support for this particular argument. There was even less of an argument for The Girl to take the ISAT for its ultimate and her inaugural year. 

Reaching for straws for reasons to justify spending 5 hours taking a test that didn't appear to have much meaning, I put it to the would-be test-takers themselves: I asked the kids. I laid down the pros and cons with them, letting them each know that there was no penalty either way. The Girl said, "Let me think about it." Then she came back and said, "No thank you." In preparation for the post, I asked her what went through her mind when making her decision. She said, "It's not going to be all math." (Some performance anxiety about reading comprehension there.) And "it's just like NWEA: test bubbles. I don't need any practice on test bubbles."  The Boy also wanted to think it over, but reached a similar conclusion to that of his sister: he'd rather have an extra hour of "sustained silent reading," to borrow a phrase from one of child lit's favorite characters/authors (Ramona Quimby, Beverly Cleary). 
And so, I made the decision to opt my children out of this year's ISAT, submitting a hard copy letter stating such to our principal and my children's classroom teachers. That I had reached this conclusion surprised no one within the building.  I was and remain open about this decision, and have fielded a fair number of questions about it. So here's my own little FAQ about the opt-out process:

Q. Will you opt out of next year's PARCC? Probably not, but it depends on the read about it I get from teachers and admin at school. For me, opting out of the ISAT this year is really a no-brainer. There is no point to this test this year, and the school doesn't really use the results for anything. I've heard from The TWN's teacher that she likes NWEA and other teachers like STEP as assessments because the data can be useful to good teaching practice. I've never heard a teacher say that about the ISAT.
Q. Who do you think is going to teach your kids while everyone else takes the ISAT?
Not everyone or every class takes the ISATs. I am confident that school staff will find something suitable for my kids to do every day for the 45-60 minutes it takes for the ISAT.  Q. Why not just keep your kids home during the testing period? 
I am not keeping my kids home for 7 hours each day because 45-60 minutes of the day will be spent taking the ISAT. Perhaps my kids can be helpers in younger classrooms (leadership), work on school auction projects (funding), D.E.A.R. (literacy), participate in another grade's art class (especially important because my 5th grader doesn't get art this year - integration*), complete homework (independent study), troubleshoot and do computer maintenance (5th grader's elective/technology). All of these are appropriate uses of time and provide opportunities for learning. 
Q. Will you also opt your kids out of the selective enrollment testing?
I have two things to say on this subject. The first is that opting my kids out of the ISAT this year has never been an objection to all testing and assessments. The second is that I am letting my kids opt themselves into that testing if they want to pursue admission to a selective enrollment school. They have a few viable options for high school; if they want to go for the gold of the SE process in Chicago, I will encourage and support them, but at this point, I am not willing to push or nudge them into that direction. 

* The explanation for this basically comes down to (a) budget cuts and (b) prioritization of student choice over 6 enrichment classes in a 5-day week.