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July 11, 2016

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.

April 16, 2015

Soft skills now, strong foundation later

Last Thursday, U.S. News and World Report published an article that I believe is long overdue and is music to my ears. In it, the article calls attention to the contrasts between early childhood education (i.e., preschool) and the education of children in early childhood (which the article defines as children birth to eight years of age). Moreover, the article calls out the education community for the visible distinction between preschool and elementary school programs, instead suggesting that perhaps an integration, rather than a separation would be beneficial to our nation’s youngest students.

The article continues by highlighting approaches that are increasingly considered and used in preschool classrooms but are not on the radars of many elementary school teachers and administrators. Namely, the higher-order cognitive processes involved in manipulating complex information, sustaining attention during learning and task completion, and inhibiting impulsive responses, collected grouped as executive functioning, deserve considerable focus. Within the developmental and educational psychology literature, strong executive functioning has repeatedly demonstrated close ties to both academic and social achievement, including math achievement and social adjustment. Moreover, as CPE highlights in an upcoming report to be published later this summer, executive functioning seems fundamental for some skills that teachers and administrators might be more familiar with given the current climate regarding college- and career-readiness. Specifically, critical thinking, which is a much desired skill that many children and students are hoped to be able to demonstrate by the time they graduate high school, appears heavily reliant on one’s ability to manipulate complex information and to follow through multi-step problem-solving procedures.

Although the U.S. News and World Report article offered several areas in which childhood educators should address (or rather continue to address beyond just preschool), one which I believe deserves specific recognition is that of social-emotional development. Research shows that children who demonstrate social and emotional competencies, showcased, for example, by being able to regulate one’s emotions and to exhibit prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and sharing rather than aggressive behaviors such as hitting and yelling are generally better adjusted in formal schooling settings (i.e., elementary school) and less likely to be held back in later grades.

Looking forward, I am eager to see more articles such as this that highlight just how important processes such as executive functioning and social and emotional skills are beyond the preschool classroom. –David Ferrier

July 3, 2014

Remembering a beloved writer

Earlier this week, contemporary literature lost one of its brightest stars. Walter Dean Myers was the author of over 100 books, recipient of multiple honors including two Newberys and three National Book award nominations. His books were especially popular with middle-school readers, many of whom read them first in English class. Myers died at the age of 76 on Tuesday, July 1 following a brief illness.

Myers primarily wrote about young characters for young readers, but his themes could hardly be described as adolescent. Often drawing from his own youth in Harlem, he told stories of youngsters’ struggles to grow up in an environment where crime, poverty and the specter of racism were constant companions to the events. As the New York Times put it, Myers wrote about “teenagers trying to make the right choices when the wrong ones were so much easier.”

A confession: I was dragged kicking and screaming to my first Myers’ book. I was — and to large degree still am — an insufferable snob when it comes to young adult fiction. The way I see it, the world has an abundance of good “real” literature that is easily accessible to young readers. Why pander to them with a dumbed down substitute? (Which I still maintain describes the bulk of the genre.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of good educators out there who don’t share my snobbery. I worked with one such person during a time when my job involved helping teams of teachers align their instruction to state standards. My colleague and I were bound for the west coast where he was going to demonstrate model lessons, including a multi-part unit based on Myers’ best-seller, Monster. He insisted I read the book first. So I started the book on the plane from D.C. with about the same enthusiasm as one approaches a root canal. I did not look up again until I finished it long before the Rockies.

Boy, was I surprised! Yes, in terms of character and plot, the book clearly shows its appeal to younger readers. Monster tells the story of a teenage boy who is on trial for a murder he may or may not have been guilty of. Told as part-memoir, part-news account, part-screenplay, the book is incredibly sophisticated, structurally complex and contains enough ambiguity to provide chum for the most discerning bookshark. Myers may have young people in mind when he writes, but the themes and the critical demands he places on the reader place him among our more innovative story-tellers.

I can see why teachers like to use his texts in their classrooms. His books provide so many riches to be mined in class discussions. They elicit many reactions. Moreover, they are open to very different, but equally valid interpretations based on the evidence in Myers’ text. As such, Myers not only relates to teenagers on their terms, he provides them with the stuff to help them develop into strong, critical readers and analysts.

Myers leaves many fans, young and old alike, who, I’m sure, will assure his legacy for many years to come. — Patte Barth


Filed under: High school,instruction,Middle school,Reading — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 2:44 pm

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