Ign switch


Business leaders in Missouri have sounded an alarm. They cannot find the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent they need to stay competitive.

So says a Vital Signs report by Change The Equation whose members are the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who are committed to promoting K-12 STEM learning.  But if you look at the statistics, you are left with two choices. Either Missouri businesses are so inept at recruiting that they couldn’t find a Batman at Comic-Con or CTE doesn’t read their own members’ reports like the one from Rand Corporation that said, “On measures such as additions to the S&T workforce and patented innovations, U.S. growth in was on par with, or above, world average trends.”

There are a lot of workforce reports that would refute the statements made by CTE, like the Economic Policy Institute report that said, “For every two students that U.S. college graduate with a STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.”

Even the Urban Institute agrees that “The available data indicate that the United States’ education system produces a supply of qualified STEM graduates in much greater numbers than jobs available.” We don’t have a shortage of STEM degreed candidates. We aren’t in danger of falling behind other countries in having an available pool of STEM candidates. Could Missouri companies be complaining about something else?

I thought maybe the report would go on to talk about the other non STEM skills that the numerous graduates with STEM degrees lacked that made them unqualified as candidates for all these Missouri STEM jobs. Instead, much of the report focuses on the performance gap between whites and minorities on standardized tests.

This is and has been an arbitrary goal. It was almost surreal to read header statements like “Are Students Exposed To Challenging And Engaging Content?”which was quickly followed by statistics about the percentage of students in schools that do not offer challenging math and science courses by race and ethnicity. Are we only supposed to care about certain kids, of certain ethnicity being exposed to content? For calculus, looking only a black and white students, we find the percentage of non-exposure somewhat close 31:36%.  Advanced Mathematics shows a slightly larger spread 9:14%, but still a great improvement over the calculus numbers in general. Breaking down those statistics further we find that the schools that do not offer theses courses are schools whose scores on basic math and reading tests are comparatively low.

What do we do with low performing schools when it comes to the basics? We spend more money. We hire math coaches and reading specialists. We fund programs that do not get measured less in order to prioritize money to go to subject areas that do get tested. Voila! Those schools offer less science and higher math because they are focusing their resources on basic math and literacy (reading/writing) which the state and federal governments have told them to do over and over and over again. So why the surprise over the STEM statistics? Would we like them to shift the resources back to STEM for kids who struggle to read or do basic math? How would that help those students in the big picture? Oh it wouldn’t, because school is not about helping the students any more, it is about helping the businesses create a workforce.

We have blinders on when it comes to minorities.  In fact, Vital Signs only worries about two minority groups, blacks and Hispanics.  If they looked at other minorities such as Asians or Indians they would find much less of a performance gap and in some cases even an advantage in student test scores. Success is a matter of setting the right goals. The arbitrary goal of worrying about the performance of a limited number of racial subgroups is pandering at best.

And it seems especially odd when we do not apply the same logic to both teachers and students. The new teacher evaluation system is designed to identify really good teachers and leans heavily towards merit pay. The new system indicates that good preparation, hard work and perseverance on the part of the teacher are what leads to higher student scores which we then use to rate teachers. When it comes to  students, somehow we think that those factors are not nearly as influential as race or ethnicity. I would love someone to explain that to me.

Vital Signs did get one thing right.

Missouri needs more teachers with a strong background in STEM content and pedagogy, particularly in science. Strategies include requiring teachers to demonstrate a stronger grasp of content while broadening the supply of teachers who can clear the higher hurdles. Missouri should create more pathways into teaching for STEM majors in college or STEM professionals who are interested in teaching.

The only problem with this is that such people are too intelligent to work in an environment that requires them to keep their professional opinions to themselves, as we have seen teachers are required to do when it comes to common core. So if the educrats decide these content experts should be teaching only certain content in a certain way, one that they find professionally objectionable, science and math degreed experts can expect to be looking for a job in another field if they do not buckle under and fall in line. Nope I don’t see that working out so long as we maintain the current top down structure to education. So count on Missouri at least remaining in the middle of the pack when it comes to the performance gap. Unless DESE would like to step out of the way and let these highly qualified teachers teach? Any chance of that DESE?  Didn’t think so.

CTE also claimed in 2012 that Missouri was on the right track in addressing this problem by adopting Common Core. “The state has joined 44 others in adopting rigorous math standards for K–12—the Common Core State Standards—and it is working with other states to create robust tests aligned to those standards.”

Don’t blame me. They singled out the math standards. Unfortunately for them, Jason Zimba later conceded that the common core math standards would not prepare students for STEM degrees.  CTE said, “Not enough students have the chance to learn rich and challenging content to prepare them for college and careers,” but with Common Core that trend would only continue.  Their report showed that there was a lack of  trigonometry, elementary analysis, analytic geometry, statistics, and precalculus in some schools. Those subjects are not covered by Common Core, nor does common core prepare students to take those subjects. We have to wonder then why CTE is pro common core.

Which brings me back to the businesses’ position in all this. They can’t find candidates in a glut of STEM candidates. They support an education initiative that, first of all is an untried product and second of all has publicly stated will not meet their goals. Some of them even have gone so far as to bully the public, like Exxon who said they would not hire anyone from a state that did not use common core, into using this low quality program. We really have to wonder about the quality of the people holding important jobs in these companies.

The recent General Motors report on their failed ignition switch may provide some insight into the mindset of those executives pushing common core on us. The new CEO Mary Barra cited “a pattern of incompetence and neglect” that she blamed on individuals who failed to “disclose critical pieces of information.” The report apparently did not even look at top level executives, but if the low level executives were not getting critical pieces of information, it is reasonable to assume the top level executives are not getting such information either.

If a low level executive, who knows little about the education system, gets treated to a nice conference or glossy marketing package by the US Chamber of Commerce which tells him/her about this fabu new program called Common Core that is going to “revolutionize education” and “produce more STEM candidates” would anyone expect that LLE to spend more than 10 minutes investigating those claims for something they will not be measured on in their performance review? How would upper level management have any idea what Common Core would really produce if LLEs don’t know it? Plausible deny-ability. But it certainly paints the brash statements of support for Common Core and threats by these industry leaders in a new light, doesn’t it?

For lack of a little bit of critical information about a process, people died using GM products. For lack of a little bit of critical information, like not having enough content to support a STEM degree, what will the impact be for schools using the Common Core product? What will happen to their students? Shouldn’t we learn from the GM experience?

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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