STEM has become the Beyoncè of the curriculum

STEM is steadily earning a place as the dazzling star in the high school curriculum and for good reason. The benefit of high-level science and math courses to later success in college, jobs, and even to healthy living is well-established (see, for example, here and here). But while the importance of STEM is unquestioned, we do risk allowing it to outshine other disciplines that may lack the same predictive value, but in their own unique ways contribute as much to preparing students for productive and fulfilling adulthood.

QueenBeyHow does Beyoncè fit into this? Right now, the Queen Bey touch predicts success like nothing else in popular culture. She drops a surprise album. Billboard gold. An hour-long music video? Three months later, critics still gush about it. She has the president on speed dial. Sure, we will sometimes weep with Adele, get uptown funky, or tell someone to shut up and dance with us. But the spotlight will inevitably draw our eyes back to Beyoncè.

STEM seems to have that same power in education policy discussions, often leaving the humanities and the arts as afterthoughts. This is not to suggest that course-taking in these other subjects are declining. Actually, high school seniors are earning more credits in all subjects. But we also don’t talk about English, history and the arts as much as we do STEM when we call for improving the curriculum.

Why do STEM courses get all the attention? I can think of a couple of reasons. The first is one, we at CPE, probably encourage, albeit not intentionally. Fact is, the evidence in support of high-level science and math is much stronger than it is for courses in other subjects. We therefore point more often to STEM subjects when writing about what works. Everything else gets short shrift by default.

A second possible reason is that the needs of the workforce often drive the conversation about the content of education we provide students. Technical jobs are leading the pack among fastest growing occupations, so we want to make sure our young people are prepared for them.

But the thing is, the research doesn’t necessarily say that STEM courses have more benefits than the humanities. What we do know is that it is easier for analysts to draw a line between science and math curriculum to college and career outcomes, particularly when the analysis is based on course titles. We can infer that a course named Algebra II, for example, is higher level than one called Business Math. But we typically don’t have a similar proxy to distinguish one English 4 course from another.

However, we can look to postsecondary education for some fairly strong hints about the importance of a well-rounded curriculum – one that emphasizes the humanities and arts as much as STEM. After all, exposure to a range of subject matter is an essential ingredient in the development of literacy skills, critical thinking and the ability to solve problems.  Entering college freshmen who lack these abilities are at a serious disadvantage. Barely one-third of freshmen who require remedial reading courses can expect to eventually earn a two- or four-year degree compared to 45 percent of students requiring remedial math and 56 percent who do not take any remedial courses at all.

Those who make it through continue to be served well by a broad-based general education along with their major. A session at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival specifically addressed business majors’ need for the liberal arts. One of the panelists cited a 2014 study from the Collegiate Learning Assessment – a national college assessment of critical thinking and writing – that found “business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences and engineering” as seniors, even after controlling for students’ abilities’ levels when entering college. Rachel Reiser in the business school at Boston University went on to say that the skills businesses want include attributes developed through the liberal arts — “the ability to think, the ability to write, the ability to understand the cultural or historical context of whatever business decision they’re making.”

The evidence for the humanities and arts may not be as compelling as it is for STEM in high school, but I think it’s enough to make the case for giving them a prominent place in the curriculum. And let’s not forget that college and career readiness is just one part of public schools’ mission. We also want graduates to be prepared to be good citizens and enjoy satisfying lives. Beyoncè will still command our attention. But let’s leave room for some others, too, who we can love just as much.

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