Esther Cepeda: A lesson in a STEM study
CHICAGO -- Every once in a while, research quantifies the effects of certain education policies on students. Then, the results are often shelved in favor of the prevailing “common sense.” As in: If you want more scientists, mandate more science courses in school.
Let’s hope this fate doesn’t happen with “Missing the Mark,” a report by the ACT college readiness test’s Research and Policy division. Authors Richard Buddin and Michelle Croft studied the high school graduating classes of 2005 through 2013 in Illinois, not including Chicago, that were affected by a state law mandating a minimum of three years of math and two years of science in order for students to graduate.
Before the reform, about 23 percent of Illinois school districts required three years of math, while about 75 percent required two years of science. Researchers were able to compare districts affected by the new law to those that had already had such requirements.
By 2013, Buddin and Croft found that the law narrowed the science course-taking gap by 50 percent. But it had little effect on trends in math course-taking. And the requirements also had little impact across the board for student achievement on the ACT college readiness exam for both mathematics and science.
While students in the bottom half of their classes did take more science instruction, this did not move the needle on college enrollment.
“The results suggest that more advanced coursework alone is not enough to improve student learning or college-going,” said Scott Montgomery, ACT vice president of policy, advocacy and government relations. “A majority of students will require more intensive preparation for advanced coursework or coursework that is better adapted to their learning needs. In addition, low-performing students often need extra encouragement and supports, not just new standards, to take more advanced courses and succeed in them.”
As always, there’s more to the story. One of the caveats of the research is that it looked only at results based on the changes in the numbers of courses taken. No measure of the quality of or content within courses before or after enactment of the law was assessed—an important variable that deserves its own appraisal in the still-evolving equation for getting students on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career paths that deserves its own appraisal.
“Obviously, Illinois is well-intentioned in the process of increasing benchmarks, rigor and courses as an approach to getting students to choose math and science careers,” said Christopher Emdin, a professor at Teachers College of Columbia University and the author of “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation.”
“But we fundamentally know that more courses being taught the same exact way as they always have will not increase persistence or affect career choice,” Emdin told me. “There is a gap in the nature of the instructor and not in the availability of the course.”
Emdin believes that existing STEM teachers and teachers-in-training need specialized professional coaching and mentoring in order to teach for motivation and understanding of the material instead of just for the grade.
He says that because students are more likely to persist in courses related to the arts, this approach opens up an opportunity for the complexities of science of math to be understood through a focus on art and creativity, communication and scientific sensibility rather than simply content knowledge.
“If we are effective in the delivery of the content in basic classes, you would more likely be successful in getting students to voluntarily take advanced math and science courses and even motivate them to see these as career tracks that are open to them,” said Emdin.
“As it is, kids who are already college bound jump through the extra hoops but don’t go into STEM fields. Worse, for the ones who stand to be the first in their family to go to college, [the higher standards put] more obstacles in their way, hampering their progress and creating heightened alienation from the disciplines.”
There will always be students who “get” math and science and don’t need special classes in which to develop self-identification with the disciplines. For the rest, a retooling of teaching methods that instills the wonder, beauty and practicality of math and science is in order if we want more kids to successfully pursue STEM careers.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.