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Four Lessons for School Leaders from STEM School Principals

 

By Johannes Rössel [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Career and technical education (CTE) is having something of a moment. An October Brookings report found that media mentions of the term, which commonly refers to programs teaching specific career-oriented and technical skills, have quadrupled in the past four years, and in 2015, 39 states instituted new CTE-related policies, many of which increased program funding.

While researching high-performing CTE programs, I was able to connect with two school leaders: Earl Moore, principal of Highlands, New Jersey’s Marine Academy of Science and Technology (M.A.S.T), and Jeff Brown, principal of Strathmore, California’s Harmony Magnet Academy. Both schools have a STEM focus, and while the institutions have their differences, four shared lessons emerged:

1. Career and technical education isn’t what it used to be — we’ve come a long way

When I think about vocational programs, I immediately visualize my own eighth grade shop class. It was a six week crash course — a literal crash, we hung drywall and then smashed it to patch it — and while I took away some foundational hammering and sanding skills, the background wasn’t connected to my eventual career aspirations.

But that’s not what many of today’s CTE programs look like, and it’s certainly not the case at M.A.S.T. or Harmony. In recent years, Harmony has added a student-run enterprise program, courses in biomedicine, and a summer coding camp targeting young women. Brown spoke to Harmony’s engineering program’s constant innovation cycle: “We’re always pushing the envelope to develop new opportunities for students; we’re constantly working to find a new way to make it more real.” Moore credited his school’s success to its ability to reinvent itself: “M.A.S.T. today is not what it was in 1981…the key to a successful CTE program is the ability to change with the times.”

2. Get you a program that does both — combining an academic core with STEM-centered courses prepares students for high-value jobs after college graduation

Both M.A.S.T. and Harmony pair traditional academic core classes with CTE-specific coursework. Both leaders found integrating a technical curriculum with a college prep foundation to be especially powerful. “Teaching academic subjects through a technical lens provides immediate opportunities for application, and students really learn at a higher level. We can’t be just a school,” says Brown. M.A.S.T. also combines CTE-specific experiences with traditional academies. All students take four years of Math, English, Social Studies, and Naval Science, but they also have the opportunity to learn on a 65-foot research vessel called the “Blue Sea.” In addition, all M.A.S.T. students participate in the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

3. Teacher preparation and professional development matter more than ever

Just as CTE has changed over time, how we teach it has changed, too. It’s critical for teacher preparation and development to evolve with the field. Moore links his staff’s ability to prepare M.A.S.T. students appropriately to an increase in ongoing professional development offered at the school and an awareness of the constantly changing skills and knowledge industry leaders are prioritizing, which are reinforced through partnerships with local businesses. “It’s an investment in money and resources,” he says, “but you need to give educators the professional development they need to achieve the goals of the program.”

4. It takes a village — and also local businesses — to get it right

No school is an island — not even a marine sciences academy. Both Brown and Moore underscored the support of local industry and community partners, from college professors to government officials, in developing their curriculum to align with workforce needs. Says Moore, “Vocational schools really need to be in tune with their local businesses.”

Region-specific programs can foster mutually beneficial relationships. Student interns are both learning and contributing to their community.

Researchers found high school CTE participants are more likely to graduate on time and less likely to drop out than students who do not take CTE courses. At the same time, some policy makers voice concerns around equity and access, as well as wide variation in CTE program quality. There’s a lot to unpack, but programs like M.A.S.T. and Harmony show positive student outcomes using hybrid vocational and academic curriculum are possible.

Are Better Schools Enough to Advance STEM Learning? A Q&A With Ron Ottinger

Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next

Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next

I’ve long thought that the best way to get more kids into STEM fields is just to give them better schools. This way more Americans are in a position to make choices about their career paths and vocations. But there is obviously more to it than that, so I asked Ron Ottinger, champion of STEM learning and the Director of STEM Next, a few questions about changing the STEM status quo. (Interview edited for length and clarity).

Andy Rotherham: Why isn’t creating great schools so kids can make their own career and academic choices enough to advance STEM attainment in this country?

Ron Ottinger: There is just not enough time in the school day to actively engage students in STEM. Young people are only in the classroom for about 20 percent of their day and must shift from one subject to the next, without being able to fully immerse themselves in any one subject.

From my years of investing in helping build the field of STEM, spending 12 years on the San Diego City School Board and 10 as executive director of the Noyce Foundation, I have seen how high-quality afterschool and summer programs can support schools in improving students’ understanding of and interest in STEM.

Our studies at the Noyce Foundation and others show that consistent participation in high-quality afterschool programs is linked to increased interest, engagement, and persistence in STEM subjects, and that some afterschool programs have helped close the math achievement gap.

We now have new, large-scale research from The PEAR Institute at Harvard University and The Institute for Measurement, Methodology, Analysis, and Policy at Texas Tech that involve nearly 1,600 youth across 11 states. The research shows increased interest in STEM careers and gains in important 21st century skills that are in high demand in today’s workforce — such as critical thinking and perseverance — as a result of participation in an afterschool STEM program. Additionally, 80 percent of students reported a positive gain in their STEM career knowledge.

AR: What is the biggest obstacle to expanding STEM afterschool programs across the country? Continue reading

Really NYT? Harmful Stereotypes About Women and Math?

Hidden Figures

Image from “Hidden Figures” – from empireonline.com

I’m not a big movie buff, but I’ve been fascinated by Hidden Figuresthe forthcoming film about the largely unknown African-American women mathematicians and engineers whose calculations were crucial to enabling the Apollo moon missions. Their contributions are particularly monumental since they came at a time when segregation and racism constrained educational and professional opportunities for so many black Americans. So I was excited to read this weeks’ New York Times profile of the movie.

That said, I couldn’t help being put off by how the article reported on the math aversion of the film’s leads. The opening sentence reads:

Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress from playing two of the most important mathematicians the world hasn’t ever known.

The article continues to reference Henson’s and Spencer’s discomfort with math as if it’s slightly endearing, without ever questioning the educational and life experiences that might have led these two highly accomplished women to hate math.

Why is it acceptable and cute for grown adults to say they’re not comfortable with math? Why do we treat discomfort with math as something to be taken for granted rather than the result of our education system’s long-running failure to teach math effectively, combined with low expectations for women, girls, and students from historically underserved racial/ethnic groups and low-income families? Continue reading