Policies to Improve STEM Education: Focus on K-6

Blog Post at Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

The following was delivered as my opening remarks during the STEM education Policy Panel during the Einstein Fellowship 20th Anniversary Summit, which occured at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on June 27 and 28, 2010.


While I believe in the importance of STEM at all levels, I believe we should focus our policies on improving STEM education at the elementary school level.

We need high quality science education in every elementary school, in every elementary classroom, for every child, regardless of language ability, disability, or income. There is no policy that will have as significant or far reaching effects as one that would ensure that all students have a strong foundation of hands-on science and technical experiences, practice with logical and critical thinking skills, and a knowledge base of facts about the world around them.

The fact of the matter is, that the K-6 STEM education pipeline is like the natural gas pipeline Sarah Palin brags about. It doesn’t exist. There are places where great science instruction is occurring for young students. These places are exceptions. We need a rule. We have been putting some modest resources into Math achievement in elementary schools, or at least test score improvement, but science, technology, and pre-engineering lessons have largely gone the way of the dinosaur, the Pontiac, and safe offshore drilling.

We will not be successful if we just impose science curriculum or science standards and testing on elementary schools without considering the workforce that would implement it, our elementary teachers; and the resources they have available for STEM, which, by and large, do not exist.

Our elementary teachers, for whom I have great respect, are, on a whole, unprepared and lack sufficient resources to effectively teach science. Those that do have the skill and ambition to teach it often must do so in spite of administrative directives. The increased emphasis on Mathematics and Language Arts has greatly limited the time teachers have to devote to science, not to mention art, music, physical education and other subjects.

Thus, an effective policy would need to train current elementary teachers, improve teacher preparation programs in STEM, provide specialists to coach and teach science in elementary schools, would mandate that comprehensive STEM instruction would occur and that sufficient time would be devoted to it, and would also provide the financial resources to bring science materials and labs to every school.

My experience working in the House of Representatives with Congressman Mike Honda enlightened me to some jurisdictional issues that can act as impediments to improving STEM education.   Perhaps other panelists can enlighten me as to how these issues have evolved in the 3 years since my Fellowship and the beginning of the Obama Administration.

The problem goes like this: I was working on legislative concepts that would best be described as fitting the topic: Science Education, not unlike the policies I just described.

When I discussed these concepts with staff on the Education and Labor Committee, or other knowledgeable professionals, I was told that Science Education was the jurisdiction Science Committee. Indeed, when I looked through the budget for the Department of Education, the only program I found related to science was the Math and Science Partnerships, which certainly don’t impact all schools for what I had in mind, and usually did not impact elementary schools. Also, if you searched the Department of Education website at that time you would find no resources related to science, only links to outside organizations.

Taking these legislative ideas over to the science committee produced similar results. “Oh, you want to do something with K-12, well that’s the Education Committee.” “But this is Science education.” “Oh, well can we turn this into a grant from NSF?”

It seems that the standard path for impacting K-12 STEM education from the Federal level is to create grant programs and other outreach programs that are administered through colleges and universities, and indirectly impact a small number of students in K-12. The vast majority of elementary students are not impacted by such programs.

This is an issue of national significance. We can’t rely on piecemeal grants, small scale experiments, inconsistent industry partnerships, charter schools, or blind faith to ensure that STEM education will happen everywhere in the United States. We need a bold, clear, national policy that will make it happen.

Planning the Program for the E20 Summit

Blog Post at Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog : https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

Teacher’s Network Leadership Institute Fellow, Policy Work for 2009-2010

The Einstein Fellowship 20th Anniversary Summit:

Planning the Program

Introduction:

During the 2009-2010 school year I committed myself to engaging in policy work, rather than action research. My initial plan was to advocate for policies to improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. Little did I know, I would be swept up by a project that would become a national summit of leading STEM educators.

Background:

This year, 2010, marks the 20th Anniversary of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship, also known as the Einstein Fellowship. This unique program brings teachers of science and mathematics to Washington, D.C. to work in the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and various federal government agencies, such as the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and NOAA. Recipients of the fellowship are known as Einstein Fellows. They serve one-year terms living and working in Washington, D.C. With their extensive classroom knowledge, experience, and credentials, Einstein Fellows provide practical insights and “real world” perspectives to policy makers and program managers.

From 2006-2007, I served as an Einstein Fellow in the office of Congressman Mike Honda. During my fellowship, I had many opportunities to learn about policy, legislation, and government. I also had the opportunity to contribute to policy by advising the Congressman on education, appropriations, and environmental issues, and by participating in briefings and roundtable discussions on those issues. My work focused on education equity, enhancing science education, and improving the understanding of global warming. Following my fellowship year, I returned to the classroom, to continue my career teaching junior high science and robotics in Santa Maria, CA.

Summary of Work:

In Fall of 2009, I joined a group of former Einstein Fellows in conversations about the possibility of holding an event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Einstein Fellowship, by bringing Fellows from the last 20 years together for an event in Washington D.C.. We formed a Planning Committee of fellows who were committed to spending a significant amount of time making all the decisions and preparations that would be necessary. Through numerous conference calls and thousands of emails, this grassroots event evolved to become the Einstein Fellowship 20th Anniversary Summit (called the E20 Summit by the Planning Committee), which will be held in Washington, D.C. from June 27 through June 30, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. This summary was written after the planning process was complete, but prior to the actual Summit.

The Planning Committee conceptualized the event to be less of a celebration, and more of an opportunity to have a meeting of minds, to share ideas and build upon the vast and varied experiences of Einstein Fellows. We divided the work into three subcommittees: Fundraising; Logistics and Budget; and Program. The Fundraising Subcommittee successfully harnessed the support of government agencies, science and education organizations, and industry partners to provide funding to carry out the objectives of the E20 Summit. The Logistics and Budget Subcommittee coordinated the venues, vendors, and bookkeeping. I took leadership of the Program Subcommittee and became the Chair to coordinate the development of the substantive components of the Summit.

The goals of the E20 Summit, as stated in our proposal, were as follows:

  • Publish and disseminate a formal report of the E20 Summit proceedings with key recommendations to inform ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind) and improve STEM education;
  • Recognize the accomplishments of Einstein Fellows and their collective contributions to policy, programs and the advancement of K-12 STEM education;
  • Promote the professional capabilities of Einstein Fellows, and other nationally recognized teachers, to national, state and local STEM education stakeholders;
  • Illustrate the efficacy of the Einstein Fellowship program as a best practice of STEM policy inclusion for teachers and professional development model;
  • Formalize and strengthen the Einstein Fellowship network.

It was a joy to work with the other members of the Planning Committee and the Program Subcommittee. On many aspects we shared common goals. Where we disagreed, we discussed our differences in a constructive manner and found compromises that everyone could accept. All participants had served as Einstein Fellows within the last twenty years in various offices and agencies, and were from many different parts of the United States. Most were science teachers of various disciplines, and some taught mathematics. The wealth of knowledge and experience in the group was incredible. Each Fellow had many valuable connections that we were able to draw from as valuable resources to implement the goals of the Summit.

The Program Subcommittee formulated the content of the Summit. Through a lengthy brainstorming process and a series of collaborative discussions, the Subcommittee created a list of possible topics around which workshops, panel discussions, or roundtable discussions could be created. The group solicited input from active members of the Planning Committee, as well as other Fellows who might attend the Summit. From this input, we created a schedule covering topics pertinent to Einstein Fellows, and relevant to the current national dialog on STEM education. We assigned facilitators to manage the sessions and worked with them to connect with experienced speakers and panelists in positions of authority within the appropriate fields. Throughout this development process, all relevant information was compiled into a document that would become the final Program for the Einstein 20th Anniversary Summit.

The final Program is a 21-page document, and includes the following elements:

  • A welcome statement
  • A description of the three locations for events, The Wilson Center, The Rayburn House Office Building, and The J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C.
  • A brief agenda summary
  • A detailed program of all sessions and events
  • The text of H.Res. 1322, a Congressional Resolution Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Einstein Fellowship, which passed the House on June 15, 2010.
  • A list of the Planning Committee and Subcommittee members.
  • Brief biographic information about all of the facilitators, panelists, and featured guests
  • A full list of approximately 200 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows from the first 20 years.
  • A list of sponsors and supporters

Looking Ahead:

Following the Summit, a report of the findings will be published by the Wilson Center and distributed nationally. In addition, we will be forming an Einstein Policy Team, which will work to promote and advocate for ways to improve STEM education using the findings of the Summit. The Einstein Policy Team will be involved in advocacy at the local, State, and National level. It is our hope that through this advocacy, we will be able to make notable contributions and give teachers a stronger voice.

More info on the Summit can be found at the official website:

http://sites.google.com/site/einstein20summit/

Educational Armageddon

Blog Post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

If we fire teachers to fix schools, who will take their place?

Under No Child Left Behind, schools serving the most disadvantaged populations of students are doomed to jump through the Machiavellian hoops of norm-referenced accountability. Indeed the expectations of these schools share much in common with the perennial “Saw” movies. Schools are expected to chew off their own arms in order to escape the chains of the testing apparatus, only to find they must climb a ladder to get out of the cage.

In the star-studded film Armageddon, scientists discover a giant meteor racing towards the Earth, and summon up a crack team of experts and load them into a top-secret armor-plated space shuttle with unheard of capabilities. Just when you think the world is going to end, the U.S.A. pulls an ace in the hole by revealing that they have all the technology in place to stop an impending disaster, and the people to do it. (Why you would keep this technology secret is the real question.) Part of the metaphor, which will at some point be clear, is that, while no one knew about it, we had actually invested vast resources to address problem that, while inevitable, was highly unlikely in any finite amount of time.

In the real world, Armageddon is going on in many schools across the country. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, and its successor, Race to the Edge, States are implementing drastic measures at schools that have been deemed underperforming by intergalactic standards. These measures can include firing the principal, firing or moving the teachers, and closing the school.

Now, on its surface these measures might sound reasonable. If a school were something like Jabba’s Palace, it would make good sense to shut the place down. But to set foot on the grounds of some of these “failing” schools, one would be hard pressed to find a lack of effort, a lack of caring, or anything other than the hardest working people around, dealing with impossible objectives and stark realities that remain unchanged, and in some cases, worsened, by education policy.

I teach in a school that probably missed California’s official “Your F’’d List” by a decimal point. The characteristics of nearly all of the schools on this list are: 1) They serve students who live in poverty. 2) The education level of parents of their students is low (many having not finished elementary school) 3) Drugs and crime are common in the communities served 4) They have a high percentage of students who are still learning English. These are schools working extremely hard, some having great success, but not meeting the bar set in an ivory tower far away, where only data matters, and only th simplest and easiest to gather data (The McNamara Falacy).

In the card game, Magic, the Gathering, the card called Armageddon destroys all lands in play. Land, in the game, is the source of energy, the ability to make progress. The card debilitates everyone playing, including the “caster.” Firing all the teachers works the same way. The teachers are everything you’ve got.

There are some notable ironies in eliminating the teaching staff of struggling schools. Often, these schools have staff with the least experience. Many schools in tough neighborhoods have work conditions that are not conducive to teacher retention. Teachers might get frustrated with the quality of the facilities, the lack or resources and support, their sense of safety, the pressure of unreasonable expectations, or the overall difficulty of the job due to the disadvantages of the students. These teachers might not have the highest qualifications. Those who did, mostly went elsewhere. These teachers might have only 1 to 3 years on the job, they’re struggling to figure things out, and the State comes in and says they’re out of job, and replaces them with ???

Another ironic situation can arise for some of the most experienced, hardest working teachers who have committed their lives to working with the most difficult populations of students. Imagine a teacher who has taught for 20 years in a school where many others have come and gone, who knows the student population, has strategies for working with students from poverty, English Language Learners, or students without parental support. Now imagine that teacher caught up in a policy that fires all the teachers in a given school, in the name of reform.

Back to the movie: There is no secret bunker with an armor-plated space shuttle. There is no warehouse full of highly-qualified teachers ready and willing to go into any high-need school and perform miracles. We need policies that are based on best practices, not pipe dreams. Do we really want Owen Wilson teaching Math? Let’s work with the resources we have, intelligently, and not start Armageddon.

Educational Equity- Legislative Solutions

Blog Post from Luke Laurie’s Teacher Blog: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

Good Administration or governance requires knowledge.Our Democracy rests on the quality of public education.

The fundamental unfairness in funding, opportunity, and achievement in America’s schools is the underlying reason for a significant portion of federal education funding (Title 1), and is both a reflection and contributing factor to the continued divisions and disparity between socioeconomic, geographic, and racial groups in the U.S.

It’s well known that the funding and offerings in schools vary greatly between states, and greatly within states. It is a sad fact that we have poor schools. These are schools that serve low income students, are underfunded themselves, and are saddled with all the baggage of the worst social problems that plague our youth. What do we do?

Within education, there is extensive dialog, tremendous effort, and massive amounts of research into the fundamental causes of the problems in so-called low performing schools. The coffers of philanthropy have opened to the problems as well. These schools are receiving targeted assistance and microscopic scrutiny. But there’s something else going on.

Schools are not equal. More than that, they are not equitable. On a basic, fundamental level, public schools that primarily serve the children of wealthy people have superior facilities, more diverse learning opportunities, superior academic offerings, and fewer obstacles to instruction. We have schools with endowments and foundations, and others with lock-downs and portables. Why do the children of the wealthy deserve more than other children?

There are legal, geographic, and historical reasons for the inequities in schools, and the inequities in funding. Often, policy-makers throw up their hands at this glaring issue, because the barriers seem so great. Without getting too much into the fine detail, the following is a list of suggestions from one lone philosopher of ways to address the inequities in education from the federal level:

Education Equity-Federal Policy Suggestions

1) Amend ESEA

  1. Require minimum adequate education and facilities in schools

  2. Prevent the narrowing or limiting of the curriculum

  3. Require states to report on inequities and to address inequities

  4. Monitor and assist states from the federal level in addressing inequities

2) Create an office of Education Equity in the Department of Education

3) Amend the U.S. Constitution: Establish Education as a Civil Right

Education Equity-Federal Policy Suggestions (detail)

1) Amend The Elementary and Secondary Education Act ESEA (currently also called No Child Left Behind-NCLB) four ways are proposed to amend the next reauthorization:

  • Include language in the bill that establishes the requirement of a minimum adequate education and adequate school facilities for all school age children in states receiving funds under ESEA. The definitions of these terms would be vital, but could include items such as course offerings, athletics, class size, staff to student ratios, individualized assistance, and so on. Such an approach could be similar to H.R.2373 – The Student Bill of Rights (Fattah).
  • Include language in the bill that prevents the limiting of curriculum and educational offerings in schools in states receiving funds under ESEA. Such language could be included in the bill both to clarify the purpose of providing federal funds for education and to prevent the kind of abuses that occurred in response to No Child Left Behind. Under NCLB, schools were rewarded for “gaming the system” by reducing course offerings or redirecting time away from the subjects that were not tested to Mathematics and Language arts. By reducing time spent on PE, science, history, and the arts, schools could show marginal gains in achievement, while depriving students of uncounted and undocumented learning opportunities. This provision could specify that education should be well rounded, and should include a wide variety of subjects for all students, regardless of their language ability, ethnicity, or disability. Such language was circulated in the 110th Congress by Congressman Mike Honda.
  • Establish State Reporting Requirements that will strong-arm states into addressing the inequities in their schools. ESEA requires states to report on all kinds of data about schools, students, teachers, and learning. Why not require in these reports efforts and progress by states on creating equal educational opportunities in their education systems? Such a report could include, for example:
  • The degree of inequity in funding in the state; highest publicly funded schools vs. lowest, as well as average funding levels, etc. Perhaps in coordination with the National Center for Education Statistics or one of these research bodies.
  • The racial and economic makeup of the lowest funded schools and highest funded schools
  • The educational offerings, programs, and facilities in highest and lowest funded schools (is there music, athletic facilities, etc. in low funded schools)
  • The efforts being taken by states to promote equity in both funding and offerings in schools
  • Legislative and legal factors that inhibit implementation of an equitable education system
  • Steps being taken to address the legislative and legal factors

States could then be required to be assessed on whether they are meeting the requirements of pursuing educational equity within their state, and could receive guidance from the fed on how to address these issues- see below.

2) Create an office of Education Equity in the Department of Education to study and to provide assistance to states to address the inequities in their schools. The office could be responsible for assimilating state data on educational equity, publishing reports on nationwide equity issues, in coordination with other statistical bodies. The office could also act in a capacity to assist states in revising their tax codes, budgets, and education codes in order to implement equitable education in their state.

3) Amend the U.S. Constitution to establish education as a fundamental civil right to be preserved and maintained by the federal government. This is a ‘hammer of the gods’ approach to addressing a broad variety of issues, while creating a whole new set of problems to deal with. The U.S., in spite of what you may read or hear, does not have a cohesive education system, it has 50 separate ‘systems’ that are often in competition with one another for Federal funds. The Federal government doesn’t coordinate our education system, it herds the United States of cats.

Education is not one of the powers explicitly given to the Federal Government in the U.S. Constitution. Receiving a quality education is not explicitly listed as a fundamental civil right in the bill of rights. Therefore, the obligation to provide education falls to the States, who accept the duty with varying degrees of commitment, and with different priorities. Part of the reason why NLCB was such a catastrophe was because it was an attempt to exert greater authority over the states, who prior to the bill saw the federal role in education as one of benefactor, not overseer.

I would imagine that some states would fight the idea of federal control of education tooth and nail, but I would imagine that some states would be happy to shrug off the burden they’ve neglected for so long.

Speech- Uncertainty and Opportunity in Education

I gave the following speech at the BTSA End of the Year Seminar.
Thank you. I am honored to speak to you today.

Introduction

I started teaching 12 years ago, before BTSA, I think. If there was BTSA back then, I didn’t go. Was there BTSA? Am I in trouble now?

I was trained and credentialed to be an elementary school teacher, but somehow found myself becoming a junior high science teacher running a robotics engineering program, and working in the U.S. Congress.

One’s life and career path can be difficult to determine. We face obstacles, we have opportunities. We make choices, and the paths of our lives are made. From where I began, I could have in no way predicted that I would be where I am now, in my career. I was sure I’d be teaching upper elementary.

I didn’t even get an interview in the districts I thought I wanted to work in. I went from a long term sub position in a bilingual K-1 combo, and two weeks later, I was a Junior High Teacher, and I have been ever since. I’m happy where I am, but along the way, there have been many factors outside my control.

When I started, I entered a teaching world that was a maelstrom of chaos. My school was busting at the seams. A junior high with over 800 kids. We were on four track year-round. We had 6 periods a day. I taught 2 periods of math, 2 of science, and one of PE. Everything I had was on wheels. I changed classrooms every month for two years. I belonged to three departments. My colleagues were full of great, innovative ideas, and long held traditions about how things should be done. But I had little time for any solid mentoring. I was treading water. And just when I got to know someone, they went off-track.

My BTSA was something of a trial by fire. We didn’t have the Williams Act back then. I got to use whatever math books I could find, whatever everyone else wasn’t using. Same with the science books. My support provider was Rogelio, the night custodian, who would talk to me when I was still at school at 6:00 PM. I had a degree of autonomy that I probably shouldn’t have had. I had the liberty and the obligation to design my own program. I didn’t have much direct guidance, but at the same time, my instruction wasn’t genius-proofed either.

On my first day on the job, the principal came up to me and said “You’d be a great MESA advisor.” “What’s MESA?” I said. It’s an engineering program. You’ll get paid 500 dollars for doing it! 500 dollars, “Wow!” – I thought. Little did I realize that the stipend was equivalent to minimum wage at the time. But I’m still doing MESA to this day. Teaching engineering and working in extracurricular programs became an important part of my career. I said yes to a lot of “opportunities” and I still do, probably more than I should. But each of these activities, workshops, conferences, mentoring and other programs I have done taught me something. Most importantly, by interacting professionally with colleagues outside of my classroom, I have been able to interact with fantastic teachers from throughout the region.

There’s more order to things now. More order in teacher preparation and mentoring. More order in our school district with a conventional calendar and smaller schools. No Child Left Behind has certainly put things in focus; perhaps an extremely narrow, myopic focus. I still teach three different classes, but they’re all science now, and they’re not all on the same day. But there are still many factors outside the control of classroom teachers. California’s budget crunch may undo the progress we’ve made. I may have 38 students in my classes next year, 38 adolescents crammed into a room and expected to learn science- a situation I have never had to face.

The greatest struggles, in our lives, and in our careers, are rarely the ones we expect. But the opportunities can be equally unknown.

Innovative Teaching

From the time I began my career as a teacher, I wanted to be an innovator. I saw education as a broken machine that needed to be fixed. I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to do them better. But, I also assumed that no matter what experiments I tried, or new methods I developed, I would face conflict and resistance from my colleagues and administration at every step of the way.
As is the way of youth, I was wrong, about many things.

My initial forays into innovative education included teaching kindergartners about astronomy, turning a junior high math class into a stock market, and having my science class spend weeks building insect collections. I was never quite sure of the kind of reaction I would get for my different approaches, so I didn’t always advertise what I was doing.
I was shocked at times by the degree of autonomy I was given, and the latitude I had for experimenting with pedagogy and content. I was strongly supported and encouraged by my colleagues and my administration. I was surprised that people had faith in me.

One day, while my students and I were on an unscheduled field trip to the park across the street, swinging around insect nets, my principal came walking across the street. I was sure I was in trouble. Thoughts ran through my head — Was it the homemade insect nets made with sharp bent metal coat hangers? Was it the poisonous acetone we were using to kill insects? Was it the fact that we were off campus without permission? But then she took out her camera and started taking pictures. She was so excited to see the kids outside, exploring their world. She said this was the kind of thing our students needed more of.

I took this to heart, and continued to develop my teaching skills and acquire resources that would help my students learn things they might not learn anywhere else. Working with technology. Building robots. Learning to program. Camping. Visiting colleges. Making movies. All of these things became a regular part of my work.

I’m not very good at some of the ordinary things about teaching. I can’t stand grading papers. I’m not so good at teaching writing skills. I don’t make very good use of the materials that come with the textbooks. I have a very hard time using anybody else’s lesson plan or science lab. So, I build on my strengths. I’m good at building LEGO’s. I like technology. I have a knack for motivation and discipline. It took me a long time to reconcile the fact that I will not be good at all aspects of teaching. As my 8 year old son says to me, “Get used to the facts, Dad.” But there are many ways of being a great teacher. So, I have taken my strengths, and avoided my shortcomings, and built a teaching style that I am comfortable with, but one that has also earned me accolades.

I didn’t teach to the test. I threw out traditional methods in some cases. I didn’t do things by the book. I invented my own units, my own class even. In 2000, I received a Crystal Apple Award. In 2005, I received the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence.

Faith-Based Education

There’s a Sidney Harris cartoon, where two scientists are facing a blackboard, on which there are two sets of equations. There is a tangled web of mathematics on the left, and another on the right, and in the middle, bridging the two sets of irreconcilable formulae are the words “Then a miracle occurs.”

This is an apt analogy for our system of education. The mess of mathematical expressions on the left side of the board can be imagined to be public education: the courses, curriculum, and structure of schools. The right side of the board and its formulae can represent one’s life and career – the output of our educational system. But the path by which we arrive at the solution to this equation cannot be expressed scientifically. I call this “Faith-Based Education.”

We provide a certain finite set of inputs through the structure in schools, often insufficient resources, funds, staffing, and offerings —and then a miracle occurs, —and then our students are ready for college, their careers, and their lives.

But what is that miracle?

It’s you. It’s us.

Teachers are the Key

In the mess of standards, lesson planning, curriculum materials, and benchmarks, sometimes we lose sight of the simple fact that the the fundamental unit of education is the interaction between the teacher and the student. Teachers and the things they do make everything else possible. Teaching is a human interaction, a social interaction, a personal interaction.  It is magical. It is unique. It is unquantifiable. I used to go to an Indian restaurant where the waiter and I talked often. He told me “Teaching is the Path of God.” I didn’t argue. Culture continues, and evolves through us, and Youtube, and FOX news. There’s a teacher in a public school classroom who has knowledge, skills, and wisdom; and there is a student, who is in dire need of that knowledge, those skills, and that wisdom. In a classroom, we work to impart those things to that child, or 38. Everything else is peripheral.

You are that pivotal piece. You are needed. You are vital. You are the key.

We face impossible odds, all the time. We do the impossible.

But there are some fundamental flaws in a system that relies so heavily on the self-sacrifice of individuals, the altruism of a few. The faith that we will do much more than we are payed to do. The faith that we will make something from nothing. The faith that we can do without some of things and some of the people that budget cuts have taken away.
When we rely solely on faith, that all these wonderful things will continue to happen in schools, sometimes they don’t. In schools where morale is low, where salaries are insufficient, where staff have been cut, where class sizes are unmanageably large, sometimes the miracle doesn’t happen. Volunteerism thrives only in a stable environment. Our faith is not misplaced, there are just limits to what it can do.

NCLB HQT

In 2003, I faced total uncertainty about my future as a teacher, along with many teachers across the country. It was at this time, that we began to implement the No Child Left Behind Highly Qualified Teacher Requirement Nicklby-Cutie. Anxiety spread when the initial information we received implied that most Junior High Teachers in Santa Maria would lose their positions or even their jobs, if they couldn’t quickly acquire new credentials.

I wasn’t satisfied with the information I was receiving at the time. I couldn’t believe that the new regulations would be so draconian. So I began my first experience in researching education policy. I contacted the State Department of Education, began reading documents issued by the Federal Government, and wrote a policy analysis that I presented to district administrators and others. I discovered several alternative routes for teachers to become highly qualified that were not being made available.

In the process, I faced backlash from my superiors. I was disciplined. Ultimately, the information I discovered became, more or less, statewide policy. In our district’s haste to be compliant, we didn’t give the powers-that-be the opportunity to get the policy right. Some teachers did end up changing positions, some unnecessarily because of confusion and misinformation, others jumped through the required hoops. I hit the books, and picked up an Earth Science Credential.

I didn’t exactly change policy, but I did do everything I could to understand policy, and use the information to protect my colleagues. This experience helped pave the way for a new opportunity that I could not have dreamed.

Einstein Fellow

In 2006, I was selected as a finalist to become an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. An Einstein Fellow.

I was flown to D.C., and interviewed at length for several possible positions. About 15 Einstein Fellows work each year in several government agencies and in the Legislative Branch, selected from Math and Science teachers from across the country. Ultimately, I was chosen to become a fellow on Capitol Hill. Ironically, the conflict I had with my district about NCLB was considered a strong feather in my cap by the interviewers, who believed I had the knack for legislative work.

After many interviews, I was fortunate to find a spot working in the office of Congressman Mike Honda, Congressman from Silicon Valley, who was once a science teacher in a school very much like the ones in Santa Maria. I also interviewed for two hours in the Office of Senator Barack Obama, amongst others, and they never turned me down, but I didn’t wait for their reply. I wanted to work in the House. Congressman Honda’s office was a great place to be, and I had the experience of a lifetime.

I moved my family all the way across the County into a little place in Alexandria, Virginia. We changed everything about our lives. I was immersed in a world of policy and politics for an entire year.

During my year in D.C., I was the principal staff member for Congressman Honda handling Education, Environment, and Homeland Security, as well as Appropriations or funding bills in those areas. I felt like I was a teacher undercover.

I got to see education from a very different angle. I also experienced a very different work environment.

(I Shared a few stories from my time in D.C. experience. Including one some reflections on class size. My visits to the cold hearted Bush-era Department of Education. Congressman Honda’s Questioning of Margaret Spellings. “What makes you highly qualified to be Secretary of Education?” And discussion of the difference in fatigue; teaching vs. legislative work.)

Conclusion

Education is in a precarious position that not everyone is aware of. While the housing market soared, and the stock market was riding high, schools saw little or no economic benefit. Teachers weren’t collecting massive bonuses or redecorating their offices (we don’t have offices). In fact, many schools throughout this period were dealing with overwhelming class sizes, crumbling infrastructure, and ongoing struggles to provide basic services. Teachers were lucky to get cost of living adjustments, and were even luckier if they managed to keep some health care. Many of us saw real wages fall.

At the policy level, we had to fight tooth and nail to prevent proposed cuts at the State and federal level every year. Unlike the housing market, the stock market, and government revenues, education didn’t benefit from the economic gluttony of the last few years, but when everything came crashing down, the funding for schools went with it.

The current cuts to education are having devastating impacts in schools across the State and in our region.

The Obama administration and the new congress have already begun a massive reinvestment in education at the Federal level, but California’s self imposed cuts may erase any potential benefit from these federal funds. I don’t want to point any fingers, but this is all California’s fault. I don’t want to be partisan, but it’s the Republicans who are forcing the tightening of the budget on education. The 2/3 vote requirement in the State Legislature effectively grants the minority party double voting power on issues of spending and taxation. As teachers we often look at the State and say what are they doing? When I worked in the U.S. Congress, we would say the same thing.

If California cannot find a way to markedly increase investment in education, we may look back on these times and laugh that we were actually trying to improve schools. We might be more likely to reflect on this time as the golden age of education, where every school was labeled as “failing”, but they were all better than what followed. Remember when we only had 35 students in each class? Do you remember art class?

It is worth noting that the administration and board of directors of the Santa Maria-Bonita school district and some other districts have worked very hard to minimize the impacts of these cuts. Santa Maria-Bonita has managed to find ways to save millions of dollars, largely by the administrators altruistically taking on multiple jobs themselves, and by delaying filling vacant positions. They insulated classrooms and students from many of the cuts, and significantly reduced the layoffs of teachers.

We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum is being taught in all public schools. We should not have to take it on faith that a student will learn in a class that is twice the size it should be. We should not take it on faith that one person can do the job that two should be payed to do. We need to invest adequate resources, distribute those resources in an equitable manner, and be careful not to impose draconian policies that will inhibit innovative instruction.

These are tough times. There is uncertainty. But there is also hope. The infusion of Federal Stimulus Funds is yet to arrive, and Federal Government is likely to continue to increase funding for Title 1 and Special Education. We need to continue to fight, and continue to seek creative solutions for the sake of our children. Some are worried about the debt we will leave them. I would argue that there are far worse things we could leave our children than debt, and the worst of them is an inadequate education.

Education For A Stronger Tomorrow – Rebranding our Education Law

For three years, I’ve struggled to come up with a new name for the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which is currently operating under the oft ridiculed name “No Child Left Behind” and the ridiculous acronym, NCLB. I knew that when this bill was reauthorized, and drastically changed, it would need a new name.

Never, not once, did I have any inspiration that sounded catchy, and gave a sense of purpose and optimism, without sounding impossible or trite. That is, until now. At last, for some reason, I finally came up with one. So here it is:

Education For A Stronger Tomorrow (EFAST)

I’m not alone in attempting to name this bill. There are many suggestions out there, some serious, though most satirical. Some of these can be seen at eduwonk’s contest on the subject:

http://www.eduwonk.com/2009/02/a-contest-name-that-law.html

STEM Education: Improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education

teachinginclass

In 2007, I testified at a field hearing on the issues facing science education in the NCLB influenced standards-based era. In light of a forum taking place this weekend at Cal Poly, I am reposting this testimony.

Testimony of Luke Laurie

Science Teacher, El Camino Junior High, Santa Maria, CA

Director: RoboChallenge

mrlaurie@mac.com

given to the

SELECT COMMITTEE ON

SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITY

Senator Tom Torlakson, Chair

October 30, 2007

Cal Poly, Keck Laboratory

San Luis Obispo

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for allowing me to speak today on the critical issues of learning environments and science education equipment needs for California’s classrooms.

My name is Luke Laurie. I am a science teacher at El Camino Junior High in Santa Maria, California. I have ten years of experience teaching and running after school programs in robotics and engineering. I am a recipient of the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence, and a graduate of Cal Poly.

Last year, as a recipient of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship, I worked as a legislative assistant in the United States House of Representatives for Congressman Mike Honda, of Silicon Valley, a Member of the Appropriations and Science Committees, and a former science teacher himself. In the House, I worked on education, environmental policy, and appropriations. I worked with Congressman Honda on the Global Warming Education Act, and to end the narrowing of the curriculum, language for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind to require all schools to provide a comprehensive curriculum to all students.

The school where I teach is not unlike many in California, serving an almost exclusively, low-income Hispanic population, more than half of which are English Language Learners. The opportunities for our students to encounter science and technology professionals in their communities are few, as are the opportunities for them to engage in meaningful science and technical experiences. That said, if we, as educators, do not provide meaningful scientific and technical experiences for students, with hands-on, minds-on learning, they won’t get them.

My time in Washington D.C. last year exposed me to the incredible bipartisan push at the Federal level to enhance science research and STEM education. Members of Congress, scholars, and business leaders agree that STEM education in the U.S. is in dire need of improvement.

Unfortunately, my time in D.C. also exposed me to the great disconnect between the federal infrastructure that provides guidance for public schools, and the framework that has been tasked with improving science education. Funds for improving K-12 science are appropriated to dozens of programs in NASA, NOAA, NSF, The Department of Energy, EPA, and the Department of Education. Rather than going directly to the schools with the greatest needs, these funds largely go to universities for outreach efforts. The results of outreach are often very good, creating amazing programs and providing unique opportunities for children, but they are also frequently short-lived, and directly affect only a small fraction of schools. The result creates a long and windy road for federal funds to science classrooms, and the trickle down effect often leaves some schools dry.

With frequent reports on the lack of science and technical literacy of American students, the concerns over global competitiveness, and the specter of global warming, one would think that science at all levels would see increased attention, increased funding, and especially, increased time devoted to science. Working down in the trenches, I can tell you from experience, that such is not the case.

Standards-based instruction and high stakes testing, the cornerstones of California education policy and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have indirectly harmed science education, as well as education in the myriad of subjects beyond Language Arts and Mathematics.

The emphasis on Mathematics and Language Arts in testing and evaluation have created circumstances where well-meaning local administrators have issued directives or modified curricula that effectively discourage science instruction, and reduce or eliminate the time that would otherwise have been devoted to science. They are gaming the system; because they can, and because they believe they need to. In effect, the climate is such that there is no penalty for schools where science isn’t taught at all. The same could be said for other subjects, such as PE, health and nutrition, fine and performing arts, industrial arts, and technical education. The very subjects that may determine our future economic stability are seen as impediments to schools chasing the ever elusive AYP or API, in spite of their cultural and economic value, and in spite of their role in retaining students and preventing drop-outs. The current climate encourages short term gains, even when the trade-off is long term losses.

In the district in which I teach, a block schedule was implemented which provides junior high students with Math and Language Arts courses every day, but PE, Science, and Social Studies, meet every other day or for only half the year. Some English Language Learners have no science at all, or are given one quarter of science, while they are placed in a reading intervention class that is in addition to their language arts class- that’s 160 minutes of language arts in a day. There are only 3 full time science teachers in my school, serving a population of over 600 students.

In some schools, the precious time they have to teach science is taken up with weekly math review, or extra reading time. The time is taken out of science as it is considered a non-essential course.

Some of the greatest impact have been on elementary science instruction. Many elementary teachers I have spoken to who are passionate about science education have been forced to reduce their time spent on science. Some express great frustration, because of drill and kill tactics and extended time on Math and Language arts, they are unable to implement the science units they used to teach, which integrated mathematics, reading, writing, and vocabulary development, and used these skills in context.

Don’t get me wrong, literacy, acquiring English, and mathematics are vital skills, however, the overemphasis on these subjects has been harmful, because science is less frequently used as the context for language development, and context for application of mathematics. The common defense for this overemphasis is that while deferring these subjects, we are providing students with a stronger framework for future coursework. Such could be tested, however, there is a tendency, especially for students in English Language Learner programs to defer science year, after year, after year. It is a disservice to these students to remove them from the courses in which the language is universal, the minds will be engaged, and students will be able to experience success. At the junior high level we are not seeing students more prepared for science instruction because of their work in mathematics and language arts. In fact, we’re seeing fewer students able to apply mathematics skills to real situations, such as the ability to measure or estimate, and we’re seeing less in the way of prior science knowledge. They are likely to have strongly-embedded misconceptions about ordinary phenomena, and they are less prepared to learn science.

Fortunately, in spite of these policies and trends, the programs that I personally work on have been strongly supported by my site administration, and we’re fighting to keep science alive. We have been able to channel grant funds and awards into strengthening my Robotics Science Course for 8th grade students, and we’ve been able to maintain strong participation in MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement).

But all of the grant funds we have acquired have provided little other than equity with wealthier California schools. We need 5000 dollars in grants each year just to keep pace. The lack of equity in funding requires teachers in schools such as mine to beg and borrow- just to get what may be provided in the next zip code.

With what we have, we have converted some regular classrooms into what you might call labs. We even have a single room designated as “science lab” on our school map. But this old classroom doesn’t have hot water, is poorly lit, has no access to gas for Bunsen burners, and if we plug in too many hot plates, it will blow out the low-amperage circuits. We make it work. Is it  a science lab? I’m not sure.

This brings me to a concept I call “Faith-Based” education. I don’t mean faith in the religious sense. What I mean is that, commonly, education policy neglects to provide much needed resources- or fails to institutionalize or require instruction that all students must definitely have. Instead, we take it on faith, that somewhere out there, some courageous teacher will pick up the ball and fill in the holes that were made by omissions of policy or shortages of funding. We see this in the teachers that go around fixing the school’s outdated computers, and the lone elementary teacher who will still take kids on science field trip, or teach their unit on whales, or growing plants from seeds- even when science has been alloted no time in the day. Or the elementary teacher who still goes out to teach PE- every day. We see this in the teachers who are working in my program, RoboChallenge, having students learn language and mathematics skills while designing and programming their own robots.

We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum including robust science is being taught in public schools in California. With one of the largest economies in the world, a world-class university system, and the wealth of corporate resources, California should have a world class K-12 education system, and world class learning environments for all students. Increased investment in K-12 science is a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits we will reap from a strong workforce, our ability to curtail and adapt to climate change, and the cultural and technological benefits that will arise from tomorrow’s innovators.