STEM Priorities, STEM Teacher Ed Investments

Earlier this week, President Obama celebrated the White House Science Fair. As part of an event celebrating all things science, he recognized recent investments in his administration’s STEM initiative, talking about jobs and the impact on the economy.

In its coverage, Tech News World went a little deeper than most, exploring recent STEM progress and where it is headed. In his story, Jack Germain endulged Eduflack, as I pushed a topic near and dear — STEM teacher education.

There is no question that STEM is important to our economic and societal success. But STEM success doesn’t come without a real investment in STEM education. And high-quality STEM education only comes when we have truly excellent STEM teachers leading our classrooms, particularly those classes in high-need schools.

As Germain wrote:

 The United States has experienced a shift from a national analog industrial economy to a global digital information economy.

U.S. social institutions — including education, finance, government, media and health — were created for the former, observed Patrick R. Riccards, director of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. That’s a problem, because Americans live in the latter, in a society that demands we transition from the models of the past to those needed today.

“This is particularly true in education,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“As a sector, we have been reluctant to embrace change, whether in the form of research findings, shifting demographics, technological advances, or similar triggers that demand change in other fields. Even as our methods of old work less and less well than they did previously, we have too often resisted the necessary transitions,” Riccards explained.

“Slowly, though, we are seeing a transformation in public education. This has been particularly true in the ways we prepare children with the science, technology, engineering, and math skills they will need to be college and career ready,” he pointed out.

If we truly see STEM as our future, the focus must be on developing a generation of excellent STEM educators for our schools — particularly our high-need schools, Riccards urged.

All the love in the world for STEM is meaningless, he said, if schools are staffed by ineffective teachers who are not truly versed in the STEM disciplines.

Couldn’t have said it better. The full article is definitely worth a read.

The Most Useless College Majors

We used to joke about those who took classes like “children’s games,” “rocks for jocks,” or even “underwater basket weaving” while in college.  That was then, when college degrees guaranteed gainful employment.  This is now, when a liberal arts degree guarantees very little.

The folks over at The Daily Beast have identified The 13 Most Useless Majors.  The list derives from Anthony Carnevale et al’s recent study, Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings.  The list was comprised looking at factors such as recent graduate employment, experienced graduate employment, recent graduate earnings, experienced graduate earnings, and projected growth in total number of jobs from 2010 to 2020.
So what undergraduate degrees made the dubious baker’s dozen?
1. Fine arts
2. Drama and theatre arts
3. Film, video, and photographic arts
4. Commercial art and graphic design
5. Architecture
6. Philosophy and religious studies
7. English literature and language
8. Journalism
9. Anthropology and archeology
10. Hospitality management
11. Music
12. History
13. Political science and government
Clearly, the arts don’t seem to be doing well in this economy, with art-related majors holding five or six of the spots, depending on how you look at them.  And it seems that the path to being the next Mike Brady, Indiana Jones, or Woodward and Bernstein don’t look too bright these days.
Our second president, John Adams, once said, “I must study politics and war, that my sons have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history, and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”
Based on Carnevale’s work and the current economy, I don’t think there are many now hoping their kids will be studying poetry and porcelain.  

Jobs and Ed, Ed and Jobs

One has to be living under a rock not to recognize that that education and jobs share a strong bond.  As we look for ways to rebuild our economy and create new jobs, it is clear that reforming our K-12 education systems, ensuring all students have access to the knowledge and skills necessary to perform in our future economy, is a non-negotiable.

Over at National Journal’s Education Experts Blog, this is the question of the week.  On those electronic pages, dear olEduflack opines on both the need for education reform and our failures to address the skills gap we now have.
From National Journal:
It’s shameful that we can’t fill open jobs in an economy like this. And it is deplorable that one’s ability to get a strong public education depends, in large part, on race, family income, or zip code. We have no excuse for not preparing our kids, all of our kids, to meet the demands of a 21st century economy. Education is an economic development strategy – the best one that’s out there. We should be redoubling our efforts to ensure that policy makers see economic development and education as two sides of the same coin, and look to them to guide states, localities, and the nation toward meaningful reforms that will prepare all of our kids for college, career, and a productive life.
Happy reading!

Reconnecting McDowell County, WV

Readers of Eduflack know I often speak of my roots and connections to West Virginia.  I am a proud graduate of Jefferson County High School in Shenandoah Junction, WV (Go, Cougars!)  But I am particularly privileged to have served on the staff of one of the greatest U.S. Senators in our nation’s history, the Honorable Robert C. Byrd.  

Working for Senator Byrd, I was able to see much of what makes West Virginia and the nation great.  I had the ability to travel the Mountain State’s 55 counties, from its beautiful ranges to its research universities, its large cities to its company towns, its river rapids to its coal mines.  Yes, West Virginia has much to be proud of.  But it is also a state with communities ravaged by poverty, poor health, and struggling schools.
Which is I was so taken by an announcement made last week by the American Federation of Teachers.  On Friday, the AFT officially launched “Reconnecting McDowell County,” a “comprehensive, long-term effort to make educational improvements in McDowell County the route to a brighter economic future.”
Reconnecting McDowell County has an impressive list of partners, including WV Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the WV Congressional Delegation, Benedum Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of West Virginia, College Board, Safe the Children, WV AFL-CIO, and the West Virginia State Police, just to name a few.  
The effort’s Covenant of Commitment is a particularly interesting read.  The effort is focused on six key issues: 1) education; 2) services for students and their families; 3) transportation, technology, and other issues; 4) housing; 5) jobs and economic development; and 6) the McDowell Community.  In the Covenant, the partners note:
We understand that there are no simple solutions — no easy answers or quick fixes.  Together, we are striving to meet these challenges, but we know we won’t accomplish that in a day, a month, or even a year.  We will find ways to measure our progress, and we believe that the changes we propose and implement must be judged by rigorous standards of accountability.  We accept that this will be a long-term endeavor, and we commit to stay engaged until we have achieved our goals of building the support systems the students need and helping the residents of McDowell County to take charge of their desire for a better life ahead.
Yes, I realize that McDowell County is not alone its history, its current challenges, or its desire to change.  Across the nation, we have counties, cities, and communities that face similar struggles.  What makes this interesting is that Reconnecting McDowell is committed to demonstrating the demographics do not equal destiny.  Old industrial towns, even old coal towns, can be reborn in the 21st century.  We can rebuild currently struggling schools around a new culture of improving instruction, greater accountability, and rising student performance.  And we can work together to put all of the conditions — from housing and health to education and jobs — in place for achievement and success.
We should all keep an eye on Reconnecting McDowell, looking at its metrics and watching its progress.  And we should be asking why we aren’t launching similar efforts in other states, in other counties, and in other communities across the nation.  The principles laid forward by Reconnecting McDowell are universal.  

National Skill Standards, Again??

Earlier this year, ACT released its Breaking New Ground: Building a National Workforce Skills Credentialing System report.  In the paper, ACT looks at the current state of the economy, the role that community colleges in particular can play in better preparing Americans to effectively hold the jobs of the future, and the specific job and personal skills one needs to work in a given sector in the 21st century.
Sounds like a good idea, huh?  Linking postsecondary education to career paths.  Identifying the skills employers need to fill the jobs they have.  Making clear to workers what they should know and be able to do if they are to be successful in the workforce.  All terrific goals.  It is a wonder we have never thought of this before.
Funny thing is, we have.  Back in the mid- to late 1990s, Eduflack worked with a little outfit in the U.S. Department of Labor called the National Skill Standards Board.  NSSB was tasked by Congress to identify and develop the basic and advanced skill standards necessary to work in about a dozen industry sectors.  First out of the gate was manufacturing, with NSSB working with the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing, along with a slew of educators, labor unions, and industry voices.  NSSB then proceeded to develop basic standards for the education and technology sectors, before the effort was shut down by the Bush Administration and efforts to fund it outside the government couldn’t quite come together.  Almost wiped off the electronic records, NSSB is actually best described on Wikipedia these days.  
Of course, NSSB itself wasn’t even a new idea when it was created in 1994.  The National Skill Standards Board was the offspring of SCANS, or the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.  SCANS began in 1990, and led with its What Work Requires of Schools report, which outlined a range of skills, qualities and competencies needed to perform in the workplace of the 1990s.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to what ACT is doing.  it is important for our nation and our educational institutions to continue to look at issues of relevancy and how best to connect the classroom to the workplace.  The credentialing framework offered up by ACT looks remarkably like the frameworks that NSSB built and advocated for.  ACT mentions SCANS at the end of its report (explaining that SCANS resulted in the development of ACT’s terrific Work Keys effort), but there is no mention of NSSB (even though ACT was involved in the NSSB movement).
Why must we re-invent the wheel on this again?  NSSB had its positives and its negatives, sure.  But if we are serious about better preparing folks for work and ensuring a higher level of skills in the workforce, can’t we build on previous successes and learn from previous setbacks?  
I’ll be honest.  I lived NSSB from 1998 until it was shut down in 2002.  I’m not sure I’d want to wish that total experience on many others.  But I’d love to see someone benefit from the work a lot of good people put into NSSB, particularly in the early years.  If ACT is serious about moving Breaking New Ground forward and changing policy and behavior, it needs to take a close look at the NSSB case study.  Otherwise, we should just prepare for yet another “new” skill standards movement to surface in a decade or so.   

A Work-Around for Edu-Jobs?

Edu-jobs.  For the past month or so, we have been hearing how our K-12 public school systems need $23 billion in emergency funding from the federal government in order to keep teachers across the nation in jobs this fall.  EdSec Arne Duncan has made passioned pleas on Capitol Hill for such funding.  The teachers unions have stood behind Duncan’s request in a way far stronger than they have ever supported the EdSec.  And House leaders like Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (CA) and Appropriations Chairman David Obey (WI) have echoed the calls and urged their fellow leaders on the Hill to ask, “what about the teachers?”

To date, though, Congress has resisted.  Many senators, wary of spending more and more money, have refused to move the issue forward.  They even cite the absence of edu-jobs from President Obama’s request for emergency funding from Congress.  Despite the best of intentions, right now, it seems like efforts to fund edu-jobs aren’t going anywhere.

It all has Eduflack thinking.  In February of 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion spending bill designed to help states and localities IMMEDIATELY deal with the budget shortfalls and shrinking coffers just about everyone was facing.  By spring, we saw roadside signs erected declaring that this public works project or these jobs were funded courtesy of ARRA.  Our K-12 schools got a big chunk of that money as well, with ARRA funding Race to the Top, i3, and big boosts to Title I and IDEA funding just for starters.

We’ve also heard how a great deal of the education ARRA funds went back to the school districts to pay for salaries.  Despite the initial guidance that stimulus dollars were meant to be one-time injections, and were not designed to pay for long-term obligations (like teachers’ salaries) that would have to be funded well after all the ARRA money was spent, we still used the stimulus for teachers’ salaries.  Just last month, one of President Obama’s leading economic advisors declared ARRA had saved 400,000 educator jobs across the country (while saying that one out of every 15 teachers could now be laid off without the additional $23 billion). 

Curiosity has gotten the better of Eduflack.  We committed $787 billion to economic stimulus that was needed as soon as possible.  The funds were made available in February of 2009.  It is now June 2010.  The nearly $800 billion is all supposed to be spent by September of this year.  According to the Recovery website, of that $787 billion that was so desperately needed, $406 billion has actually been paid out.  There is still $381 billion still sitting in the kitty.

In California, the state seen as having the most dire current economic position (and the most difficulty paying teachers), only $8.8 billion of the nearly $22 billion promised to the Golden State has been dispersed.  In New York, they’ve gotten $2.5 billion of their $12 billion.  Illinois has taken in $3.7 billion of its $8.1 billion.  Georgia’s taken in $2 billion of its $5.4 billion.  Oregon’s taken in just $809 million of its $2.5 billion.  And even the cash-strapped Ohio has only tapped $1.7 billion of its available $7.6 billion.

So it begs the question, why don’t we just reallocate some of the committed $787 billion in stimulus money to pay for the $23 billion in edu-jobs?  The money was designed to help states and localities save jobs.  Check.  Funds have already been used to save teachers’ jobs (those 400K that Christina Romer touts).  Check.  There is plenty of money that still hasn’t been spent.  Check.  And we need to spend this soon.  Seems like a win-win for all involved.  And one could even win over the reformer crowd (which has been concerned that edu-jobs funding will simply perpetuate the notion of last hired, first fired and prize tenure over effective teaching).  Tie the dollars to the priorities in ARRA, using RttT language to ensure that new edu-jobs spending is aligned with teacher and principal quality provisions being moved through Race.

A simplistic idea?  Perhaps.  But new federal funding for teachers’ jobs isn’t going anywhere.  If the goal is to protect those educators and avoid laying off the “one in 15,” then why not ask Congress to reallocate the funding they’ve already spent?  At this point, it is just like asking if we can use our allowance to buy baseball cards instead of bubble gum.  The money’s already left Congress’ wallet.