STEMs of a New Education in America

For those of you who don’t know, Colorado is currently undergoing a massive educational reform (or, at least it’s trying).  Here are some scary statistics (and if you don’t believe me, look ‘em up):

 

*The average cost of educating one child annually is nearly $13,000

*District 11 (here, in Colorado Springs) is suffering from a lack of funding (which comes from federal dollars and tax revenue–like amendment 64 and the recently denied 66), barely scraping by on about $8,000/year per student

*The average cost of maintaining one inmate in prison is nearly $33,000 annually

*Not only is the U.S. ranked almost dead last in international performance tests such as math and science, it also ranks the highest on how students felt they performed. So, our ego is rather unjustifiable.

*The U.S. spends less of it’s annual GDP on education and early childhood development than almost 20 other nations.

 

^ Notice the troubling trend?

 

The short and dirty version is that one of the newest and most supported ideas is the STEM curriculum (Science Technology Engineering Math).  With many think-tanks in education considering how to refocus American education and make it more competitive, this curriculum was created in order to reflect American values such as ingenuity, entrepreneurship, problem-solving and critical thinking.  The implementation of this curriculum requires teachers to be trained with an interdisciplinary focus instead of one that is specialized so that students may study in a way that incorporates all of STEM’s values.  Colorado educators have taken to this curriculum idea, and last week my class was fortunate enough to participate in a STEM symposium, which was comprised of educators from all across the state.  The purpose was to discuss strategies for STEM’s implementation, including funding and investment, teacher preparation and the fine-tuning of the curriculum itself.

Many current models of the STEM education have had great success, such as in states like North Carolina, where rural and inner-city schools achieved a higher level of academic performance.  But Colorado faces a number of increasingly difficult hurdles towards the implementation of the STEM curriculum.  In contrast to most states, Colorado’s schools are run on a district level instead of the state level.  Most states provide guidelines and standards by which districts and schools format their curriculum.  However, the power in Colorado to manipulate curriculum lies within the district.  There are over 160 school districts in Colorado, making the standardization of teacher evaluations, funding equity and policies nearly impossible.  Imagine attempting to create a single policy that meets the needs of all districts in Colorado.  The simple answer is that there is no such policy.  This brings us to the next barrier against STEM in Colorado.

Senate Bill 191! Well, what is SB191? This bill proposes that instead of teachers working within the standard salary ladder through which they have worked for years (wherein as teaching years at an institution increase, generally salary also increases), these teachers should be paid based on performance. Wait a minute.  Didn’t we just say that in Colorado there are over 160 completely different districts with completely different needs and populations? Under SB191, teachers’ pay will be determined based on two primary things: 1.) evaluations from peer educators and/or students 2.) test scores.  It would seem to me and I’m sure many others that this bill overlooks several serious issues.

 

1.) Students are not machines.  Their performance on a test does not determine their scholarly capacity, nor does it determine that effectiveness of a teacher at a testable and verifiable level. What if the student was sick that day? What if that student’s mom just died? Wouldn’t you fail your test that day too?

2.) There are bad teachers and there are bad students. But how do test scores distinguish accurately between the two?

3.) Principles, peer educators and even students will all have a different way of evaluating a teacher.  Even if the form by which everyone evaluated teachers was exactly the same, the results and responses would be inevitably different.  A principle from Grand Junction, Colorado is unlikely to have the same evaluation methodology as another principle in Colorado Springs.

 

The list could go on, but the idea that SB191 is problematic should be clear enough.  So why is this Senate bill not only bad for teachers but also bad for STEM?  Well, with the standard model of the specialized teacher provides for simpler evaluations.  Measuring whether students have mastered specific concepts in solely Biology is easy.  How does one go about measuring a student’s critical thinking skills? What about problem-solving? Teamwork? Interdisciplinary incorporation and ingenuity? And let’s not forget that these evaluations pertain to hundreds of thousands of teachers that teach millions of students.  Senate Bill 191 is on a direct collision course for STEM.

I would like to touch on something that is also important–open mindedness and prioritization.  Don’t get me wrong. I very much support the refocus of American education, and I think students could benefit greatly from the STEM model. However, my experience at the symposium was different than I had expected it to be.  My classmates and I were the only undergraduate students present at the symposium (and for the most part, let’s be honest–we were quite easy to spot in discussion groups).  Initially, it seemed that the STEM discussion leaders and other educators from Colorado were very interested in our input.

“Ooh ooh! What’s your major?”

“Are you going into education? What might you teach?”

“What was your high school like? Do you like the idea of STEM?”

But when several of my classmates and I started asking the hard questions like, “Why?” and “Is there any data or research to support this idea?” no one listened.  They wanted us to believe that we had a voice and a role in this symposium, but the dark truth was that this symposium had a different motive.  This symposium was to present propaganda for STEM; it wanted the seal of approval from the educators present.  Our ideas for the implementation of STEM served only as tools for the STEM think-tank.  A perfect example is when a high school teacher from Western Colorado stood up and asked, “Is anyone else noticing the complete lack of statistical support for this method? I think the ideas are great, but what real proof to we have that this stuff works? How can you convince me to become a part of this without real evidence?”

The room was silent. Maybe two people out of one hundred clapped. And of course the panel speakers were unprepared for this question.  This wasn’t supposed to be the course of things.  Eventually one panel member responded with a generic, vague, unhelpful statement and the symposium moved on.  Everyone just forgot about that high school teacher and his incredibly important question. After the speaking panel, I approached this high school teacher and gave him my thanks for speaking up and asking the hard questions virtually no one else was willing to ask. On the verge of tears, he described to me the crushing pressure of a teacher in today’s system.  Each day he teaches what he thinks is important and good for children, but the system is telling him to teach something in a way that is clearly ineffective and bad for students. So when the principles come by, he writes his curriculum objective on the board and says his “Yessirs” and “Yes ma’ams,” because these are the people that pay him, that secure his job.  He said he saw the tears in many teachers’ eyes that day, for they had experienced the same, tormenting problem.  And yet, no one is asking the hard questions.  Shouldn’t the hard questions be the first questions? Should we care more about being recognized for our ideas, or more about getting something done for the future of this nation? This whole education thing isn’t just about children or money or equity or politics. It’s about what happens to all of us in the next 10 years.

 

So I pose this last question to all of you out there, students and teachers and everyone in between:

Where do you want to be in 10 years?

 

Let’s roll up our sleeves and get something done out there.

Andrew Eshleman

I was raised a Southerner / Inner-City hybrid in Little Rock, AR. I hope one day that I will be a teacher, either teaching English abroad or teaching Spanish domestically. I love language, education, video games and cigarettes. And rugby.

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