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Tag Archives: workplace readiness

Flowerless STEM

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STEM is such an oft-used acronym that people outside of the education industry no longer think of flowers and plants when hearing it. The origin of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math emphasis is a response to the United States’ position in the international market. In 2006 President G.W. Bush initiated policies to increase federal funding to support STEM education and output as a response to concerns that the U.S. was falling behind. That same year the Unites Sates National Academies (comprised of; National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, National Research Council) issued a plan to federal policy makers to address their concerns regarding the declining state of U.S. STEM education. When the President and national academies directly involved with very lucrative industry call for action, attention is usually paid.

Not many people would argue with improved education and higher standards in any subject. But when an initiative seems reactionary and the response narrow in focus, there is concern. Determining that there is an industry, in which the U.S. is not leading the way let alone keeping up, is relatively unprecedented. It is no wonder that we’ve reacted so strongly and rapidly. It’s a little disconcerting to start to lose one’s superpowers. But to focus on one area of study is tantamount to remodeling K-12 public education into vocational training. To do this while ignoring what other factors make many other nations superior in their industry and education is shortsighted. There are so many cultural, political and traditional differences in the ways countries conduct their business and education.

There are places in which children attend school six days a week and are in lengthy after school classes well into the evening. (There are countries in which one’s work life is as intense and prescribed as well.) There are countries in which K-12 educators are highly trained and paid and are given professional latitude and respect. But we don’t seem to be selecting much from the international buffet table beyond STEM emphasis; and that is what leads to thoughts of shortsightedness. When the money and policies are focused on one area it is inevitable that other areas will suffer. It is often those areas that are less quantifiable but no less necessary in the modern world. Most often and most likely it is Language Arts, History and the Fine Arts that are left behind. Science, math, engineering and technology are fabulous tools to help to understand how our world works and how to work within it. But being well educated is more than being well trained in one area. Understanding the world around us and knowing how to communicate to that world in which we live, knowing how to write, speak, and process the written word are crucial skills; without them there is no sharing of STEM or any other discoveries.

Without a sense of national and international history we are destined to stumble through the world half-seeing. Without exposure and access to the performing and fine arts what (to paraphrase President Franklin D. Roosevelt) are we even fighting for? The arts reflect the times in which they were created and are vibrant and pulsing history lessons. They also stretch the intellect and help us to see the entire world in more vibrant hues. Education (unlike job training) is meant to open and fill our minds. We need to be taught subjects but also how to critically think for ourselves. Education should be broad, deep and challenging. We should bolster STEM studies, and we should also ramp up all liberal arts studies. There will never be a national consortium of arts organizations with serious economic juice. But it is certainly well within the power of federal policy makers to invest in well-rounded education for all.

We have never been a country striving to make everything the same. We celebrate our diversities. We get a kick out of our different dialects, names for foods, and local customs. We are a 31 flavors kinda people. Do we really want the primary focus of our K-12 system to be in one subject area? Where will the political scientists, playwrights and lawyers come from? How will we get well-rounded novelists, historians and Supreme Court justices? There’s no doubt that our education system is not what it once was. Schools are asked to do way too many things besides educate, teachers are not treated well, and funding is elusive. The answer is not to be found by sticking our fingers in our ears and muttering “la la la STEM.’ We’re better than that, we’re bigger than that and we’re certainly more interesting than that.

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Education

 

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The Core Of The Matter

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If you’ve been out of your home or watched commercial television you know that it’s Back To School time! As we eek out the last promises of summer, the (retail) world is telling us the party’s over. Soon children across the country will be sent off to “have a great year!” Parents and guardians will demonstrate varying degrees of engagement with classrooms and curriculum. But this year there may be a more unified sentiment as The Common Core curriculum is rolled out. The new national (K-12) standards have already been adopted by New York City; and the recent test scores confirm the early complaints of teachers and parents; the stuff is hard.

The tests evaluate what most K-12 tests evaluate; mathematic and language skills. Governor and school superintendent appointed experts developed these standards. The broad (and obvious) mission is to create a national standard for education. The outcome goal is to prepare children for college. That sounds too logical for discussion, right? Well of course K-12 should prepare an individual for college! Not so fast. First off, for approximately 50% of (admitted) college freshman that is not the case. Almost half of all incoming freshman need remedial work when arriving on campus. Secondly, it is not possible that 100% of K-12 students want or need to attend college.

The early grumblings of parents (most of whom have not yet experienced this new curriculum) suggest the roll out is going to be bumpy. Change is always rocky particularly when it’s been too long in coming. No one anywhere will argue that a high school degree is not what it was 50-70 years ago. Most high school diplomas do represent some level of achievement. But unlike the degree of yesteryear they do not necessarily indicate workplace or college readiness. The amount of remediation that occurs on college campuses (at a very high cost) should be alarming enough for parents and educators to demand tougher K-12 standards. However we do need to demonstrate a bit of caution; keeping in mind that colleges and universities are admitting unqualified students. This fact might indicate a bit more to the story.

Higher education is big business. In 1940 only 5% of American men were college graduates. In 2010 the percentage of Americans with baccalaureate degrees was closer to 40%. Colleges and universities are doing eight times the business they did seventy years ago. New buildings have been built, new colleges have been created, programs and institutes have received large amounts of public and private funding, and people have been hired. If they build it and they don’t come, they don’t survive. Tuition never covers the cost of running a college, but there’s no business to be done without product; and students are the product. So yes, the high school graduate with weak writing, or high school level math skills is admitted. And on the tuition payer’s dime, they take the equivalent of high school level classes. For each remedial class they take they prolong their stay and diminish their electives options. Accepting unprepared students means the institution has the income stream for at least four years (often more.) (For a student who is college ready, and arrives with advanced placement credits, graduating in three years is often a viable option.) Large entry-level courses are far more profitable to offer than smaller seminar style classes. This isn’t to suggest that college presidents and boards are collectively twisting their mustaches in some sort of plot. It is to suggest however, that higher education doesn’t suffer from less prepared students.

Students are harmed however when they graduate from high school without basic skills; such as reading comprehension, writing, algebra and geometry. Few parents want their children spending their school day doing test prep. It is a boring and stressful way to spend a school day and comes dangerously close to ignoring all learning beyond basic skills. But parents do want their children to learn and do well. Raising the standards of K-12 curriculum is a step in that direction. Ideally we want our children to graduate from high school fully prepared for the next step in their lives. They should be ready to enter the workforce, vocational training or college. It is not too much to ask and it is simply what we owe to them.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Education

 

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Education By Degrees

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Higher education was once a luxury item for Americans. Families who had the means and/or men, who didn’t need to support their families of origin, went to college. There were no entrance exams or even much to speak of in the way of requirements. If you could find your way there, and were of the ‘right’ background, you could give it a go. There was no such thing as ‘student life’. Oh the students did live, but they did so under their own direction. Boarding houses, spare rooms, and inexpensive restaurants were the origin of the student life species. Slowly colleges and university became more accessible, less religious, and somewhat more diverse. The G.I. Bill may have been the greatest diversification of higher education. People (mostly men) from all backgrounds were now attending college for the first time. This phenomenon created an awareness and glimmer of opportunity for families across the country. College began to seem less of an elitist pursuit and more an intrinsic part of the American Dream.

Fast-forward and we are now experiencing the aftershock of a similar deluge of students. The baby boomers’ children attended college in large numbers. Colleges/universities competed for these tuition paying people by out positioning each other. Monies were spent to upgrade and to market a ‘student life’ experience that would appeal to a generation who lived larger than their ancestors. Concurrently, government spending in higher education ebbed and the stock market did that bad thing. Tuition and student debt rose. A few years before all this, employers began to view a baccalaureate degree as a minimum requirement for almost every job. At face value this would appear reactionary. Well of course a B.S. or B.A. is a requirement! Why wouldn’t it be? After all, everyone has one! But the truth is probably a bit more calculating than that. The fact is that as all this was happening in higher education, K-12 was changing as well. A high school diploma rarely delivers a workplace ready employee. A high school diploma was once an accomplishment in and of itself, and a ticket to secure employment. That 50% of incoming college freshman need remedial work, speaks to the state of a high school diploma. College work has not gotten more difficult, if anything there are curriculums so breezy they would make those boarding house dwellers of yesteryear spin in their graves.

Skyrocketing tuition plus the baccalaureate replacing a high school diploma as a requirement creates a perfect storm of sorts. We are beginning, and will continue to see the formation of two tracks of higher education. Some of us remember (or heard stories) of these tracks in K-12. Certainly we’ve heard of programs in foreign lands that still adhere to tracking. Students who were seen as being more practical than scholars, were steered into technical vocations. Those perceived as having scholarly potential were readied for higher education. There are many colleges across the country that cater to average students. (There is something to say for college being an experience for all learners.) Colleges, in these cases are charging and receiving extraordinary amounts of money to create workplace readiness. These colleges are private as well as public and diverse in their origins and how they deliver degrees. They are doing nothing but fulfilling a need and addressing a reality. Some of these schools have a great alumni network and/or stellar career placement. But what of those that don’t?

We’ve created a very expensive and time consuming way to obtain what we consider a minimum education. The ridiculousness of considering a baccalaureate a prerequisite for all kinds of work is equal to the state of many high school degrees. Public education should be producing young men and women who can write, speak, calculate and think. Colleges (with their enormous expense) should not be taking the place of K-12 public education. 50% of incoming freshman are paying (big bucks) to complete their high school education (via remedial work.) Employers need to rethink what skills are actually needed for each job. They need to beef up their Human Resources offices and return to placement testing. Certificate programs (offered in high schools or in community colleges) should be created in partnership with large-scale employers. It is simply not sustainable, this gerbil wheel we’ve created. There are young men and women spending years and money they may or may not have, because their public education is not all it should be and once was.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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