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.

National Curriculum Standards

I have a newer post on this topic: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/u-s-national-curriculum-standards-for-the-future-of-the-nation/

National Curriculum Standards- TNLI Discussion for May
Luke Laurie
Santa Barbara County, California

(Update 12-09: This Post is the 7th hit on Google for the search term “National Curriculum Standards.” I hope you give the post some consideration, and feel free to leave comments. I’m interested in your viewpoints.)

I want to thank my colleague, Kristen Anderson, for bringing the topic of National Standards to our discussion. The problems associated with implementing National Standards highlight the difficulties related to creating any unified education policy in the United States.

Arguments Against National Standards
While I believe that there are compelling arguments against creating and implementing national curriculum standards, most of these arguments relate to the structural and political issues, and not, necessarily, what is best for the Nation; nor are they sufficiently compelling that we should disregard the notion of exploring the concept. These arguments include the historical separation between the roles of the Federal government and States in education policy, the concept of States rights, and the sense that local control is always best. In fact, without significant changes in law or an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, creating mandatory standards or assessments could even be illegal or unconstitutional.

Benefits of National Standards
I agree with my colleague Linda Edwards on this topic, in that national standards could greatly increase the efficiency by which curricula and assessments are developed, by eliminating the obligation of States to carry out this process independently. Costs could be reduced and safeguards could simultaneously be put in place to prevent a monopoly by large publishers to develop curriculum materials. A door could potentially be opened to small publishers who might be able to compete at a national level playing field, rather than forcing small publishers to target particular regional markets and unable to meet the current requirements for adoption in multiple States. Comparisons between States would obviously make more sense, with regards to uniformity in assessments. In addition, it could become easier to compare practices in different regions with a common assessment.

By nationalizing standards, and increasing the degree of efficiency in assessment, there could also be the possibility that we could develop national systems for better assessments. Perhaps we could be looking at more logical longitudinal data, and assessments that go beyond multiple choice.

Goals for National Standards
National standards could serve us best if they set standards that could be considered our collective national goals. The trouble with local control, is that it allows abrogation of responsibility, and potentially relies on inadequate local resources. Education allows for the success of our economy, our innovations in science, medicine, and the arts, and the preparation of our citizens to be contributing members of society and participants in democracy. These are not local or regional issues. By creating comprehensive national educational goals, we would not only be answering the timeless question of what schools are for, but we would also enable the targeting of national resources where they are needed to help regions achieve the goals that are good for the Nation as a whole. Formula grants and competitive grants are nice, but they don’t necessarily meet the true needs of all schools and all children.

Math and Science First
Changing all subjects at once in a short time period would be unwise, both logistically and politically. While the governors are recommending Math and English a la NCLB, I would suggest implementing Math and Science standards first. There are bills already on the books to create national standards in these subjects. There is little (but some) disagreement amongst professionals about the content that should be included in Math and Science, and tremendous political will. Business groups, education professionals, and the scientific community have been issuing recommendations on the need to unify and improve our instruction in these areas both for the benefit of improved college preparation, and for the “competitiveness” or “innovation” agenda; which see a growing need for more competent and creative professionals in technical and scientific fields.

Potential Problems
It may sound un-American for the Federal government to tell you what to teach in your classroom. Yet, our current lack of a true national education policy leaves us in a situation where some regions, some communities, and some states provide curricula to our youth that may be inadequate or misdirected for serving our greater national interest.

I don’t believe that regional differences should necessitate different standards or expectations in most curricular areas. These regional differences may necessitate different approaches, and may require different resources. But to say that the math required in Kansas should be different than California because of regional differences is ridiculous.

Limits of National Standards
With History and Social Sciences, we could get ourselves into serious political and ideological debates. Any attempt at national standards in social sciences would undoubtedly invoke the ire of groups of people; cultural, racial, religious, or otherwise, who would likely protest omission, misrepresentation, or vilification of their group. Any attempt at being all-inclusive and comprehensive would run the risk of being too unwieldy to be viable. If there were a curricular subject for which national standards might be too difficult to implement, it would be History-Social Sciences.

After all, if we learn history well, what are we going to repeat?