K-12: The War on STEM
A parent recently provided insight into what has become of public schools: "The school district administrators are so nice to you in the meetings, while they are sticking a knife into your child's back."
More than most people realize, K-12 is often a realm of duplicity. The main strategy is to pretend to care about a subject or skill, but in fact to undermine it. The educrats dissemble even as grades plummet, until the public is thoroughly confused about which reforms might actually work. Despite endless chatter and assurances, there seems to be no genuine attempt to improve K-12. Quite the opposite.
The country is routinely lectured about problems with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). For example: "STEM is gaining momentum in classrooms across the country. However, the U.S. still ranks 38th and 24th out of 71 developed countries in math and science student achievement, respectively."
We are gaining momentum but still mediocre? You know that vast budgets have been expended. Why is there so little to show for it? How does our Education Establishment get away with so much doubletalk and under-achievement year after year?
Consider this grim news from Fast Company: "The U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicts that in the next decade, we will need approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than we will produce at our current rate." So the logical question must be, why is the current rate far below what is required? Our Education Establishment presides over this shortfall. Its ministers make it happen; at the very least, they let it happen.
Fast Company goes on: "The challenge is clear: Universities need to attract more students to STEM programs. But once these students have enrolled, another challenge begins to unfold: Only about 40% of students who enroll in STEM programs graduate with STEM degrees." That's usually because they don't have a proper grounding in math and science. In other words, the kids are crippled before they start. No matter how many students try to major in STEM subjects, only a small portion will reach the goal. Obviously, children should receive a better grounding from kindergarten onward. But they don't.
Here is another bizarre announcement: "In science education, the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered for the dramatic reduction in the teaching of science in elementary schools across the U.S. as a result of national education policy. Many believe the heightened instructional focus on [reading] and math came at a great societal cost in terms of compromised scientific literacy of the public."
This is weird and finally preposterous. Note the silly premise that we can't do two subjects at once. Further, in the middle of gaining momentum, we supposedly had a dramatic reduction in the teaching of sciences so we could teach reading, etc. Worse, the reading and math apparently utilized the ineffective approaches generally known as Common Core English and Common Core Math. The official policy of the mighty United States was to pretend-focus on reading and arithmetic and use that focus as an excuse for almost obliterating STEM. The incompetence and incoherence here are so great that our brains are stunned.
Curricula such as Everyday Math forbid memorizing multiplication tables, encourage a random spiraling from topic to topic, and always reject the use of the common algorithms in favor of odd ones that are hard to understand. Watch the children struggle, and you will understand how counterintuitive K-12 has become. Whatever policy is officially embraced, we get results we don't want. Common Core homework makes children cry. That would tell sincere experts they have made the wrong choices. Our Education Establishment seems incapable of finding better strategies. Education should be engaging and fun, not tearful. Start there.
John Saxon, math warrior extraordinaire, harped on this point in the 1980s and 1990s. Students exposed to good teaching will, in much higher percentages, go on to the study of algebra, calculus, chemistry, physics, and so on. However, if students have to wade through dysfunctional education in the early grades, they are not likely to stay interested in more difficult subjects. Even as this predictable tragedy unfolds, all the experts noisily pretend they are solving the problem.
Recently, Michigan State University announced a writing program for STEM students. Here's the hype: "Michigan State University is leading the way in a multi-year and multi-million-dollar project to improve education for universities nationwide. The research will specifically help students studying science, technology, engineering, and math, also known collectively as STEM education. When finished, these educational changes could even be felt around the world."
What are these people talking about? The kids can't write very well, so MSU wants to help, but how can that be called a STEM initiative? Writing is for everything. There's no assurance that these children will know anything more about any branch of science. Hopefully, they can write a better paragraph, but that's not yet demonstrated.
If you want to help STEM, teach children to read, write, and do basic arithmetic, all intermixed with general science, from day one. Our Education Establishment has to know this, but it has spent so many decades eluding its responsibilities that it's hard for the people in charge to settle down to the basics. So they try to hide behind a flurry of promises, new initiatives, fundraising announcements, and other deceits and distractions. All too often, the fundamentals are ignored until high school. Suddenly, alarms are sounded, and another STEM miracle is promised, but for most kids, it's too late.
When the United States is in the top five in math and ranking high in the other major categories, then you can assume that our Education Establishment is doing a good job. Otherwise, these people deserve scrutiny, not respect.
Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them? He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.