More STEM Students
by Mel Riddile
On November 23 President Obama helped launch a new campaign, “Educate to Innovate,” designed to energize and excite America’s students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). According to the White House report, the program “builds on the President’s pledge that he would use his position to help encourage students to study and consider careers in science, engineering, technology, and innovation—fields upon which America’s future depends—and elevate those students from the middle to the top of the pack worldwide.”
Educate to Innovate is designed to reach millions of students over the next four years and inspire them to “become the next generation of engineers and scientists, inventors and innovators.”
In his Inaugural Address, the President vowed to put science “in its rightful place.” According to the report, one of those rightful places is the classroom. The report goes on to point out that “our schools lack support for teachers or the other resources needed to convey the practical utility and remarkable beauty of science and engineering. As a result, students become overwhelmed in their classes and ultimately disengaged. They lose, and our nation loses too.”
- What really needs to be done to increase science and math participation and performance?
- Involve principals – Any effort to improve STEM performance in schools will need to involve the instructional leaders—principals and assistant principals. STEM initiatives must be a part of the vision and focus of the school.
- Pipeline Issues – It is our responsibility to improve learner readiness so that all students have the skills to graduate college-, career-, and workplace-ready. Simply registering more students in science, math, or AP and IB courses will only set them up for failure. As school leaders we must work to enhance student skills so that they can succeed in those courses.
- Ability – Students lack the requisite literacy and math skills needed to succeed in STEM courses, not because of ability, but because of the absence of skills, skills that they never mastered. Whatever we want students to know and be able to do, it is our responsibility to teach them. Stopping literacy instruction at the end of 3rd grade effectively sentences a significant percentage of students to increasing academic difficulty and eventual failure.
- Literacy – In many schools one-half of entering ninth graders read significantly below grade level, and fully 70% of entering ninth graders read below grade level. Students who cannot comprehend their textbooks cannot and will not succeed in advanced science and math courses. Literacy instruction is not the responsibility of the English Department. It is every teacher’s responsibility to teach the language of their content area—comprehension, vocabulary, writing, higher-order thinking, and discussion skills.
- Math – Math teachers have repeatedly told me that entering ninth graders lack basic math skills. Many students do not know multiplication tables, and do not understand fractions and percentages. High school math teachers contend that they spend an inordinate amount of time teaching basic math skills before they can actually teach algebra or geometry.
- Curriculum Alignment – Aligning the curriculum demands that we begin where we want students to end. We want all students to graduate college-, career-, and workplace-ready. The focus becomes keeping students “on-target” as opposed to “on-grade level.” Literacy skills must be taught at every grade level in every classroom. This is a K-12 issue not a K-3 or a 9-12 issue. This effort requires that literacy instruction be aligned throughout the grades. The math curriculum must be aligned to prepare students to successfully complete Algebra II and preferably one course beyond. Instead of weeding out students who are “not ready” we need to prepare students to be ready.
- Invite Don’t Announce – Simply opening courses to a wider range of students is insufficient. School leaders must personally invite students to enroll and they must work in partnership with counselors to ensure that students are receiving the encouragement they need.
- Academic Supports – The reality is that some students will struggle in more rigorous courses. School leaders need to build in academic supports that provide more time for students in the form of added instruction and opportunities for guided practice.
- Parents – My message to parents was simple. Stop telling your child that you weren’t good at math, science, or any other subject. Teach them that their success depends on their willingness to work harder and to put in more time. See Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.