Friday, May 1, 2015

The Demonization of Curriculum... This Time It's STEM

Anyone read Fareed Zakaria's article warning of the demon known as STEM?  If not, you can read it here.  Normally I enjoy Zakaria's take on things.  But as usual, someone outside of education, who feels he is an expert because he went to school, thinks he can weigh in.  Sigh.  It's a freakin' epidemic.

Stick with me if you think I am missing the point of the article.  It may seem that way.  But just hang in there, OK?

So, a few glaring issues here.  First off, no one, and I mean NO ONE in education thinks STEM is all that any student needs, and that liberal arts and the humanities should be abandoned.  You would be hard-pressed to find one educator that believes that nonsense.  Rick Scott?  He doesn't exactly reflect America, and he certainly doesn't reflect educators in America.  The only other evidence given is one mistake made by President Obama, and two other crazy Republican governors. Hardly evidence that the sky is falling.

The emphasis in recent years on STEM partially comes from a lack of emphasis on these areas in the past.  Specifically, many teachers teach science without the hands-on component, and many do not teach engineering at all.  Many teachers deliver math instruction with an emphasis on "drill and kill."  And regarding technology, well, see, there's this thing called The Digital Divide that we must narrow.  In addition, we must ensure technology is used as a tool for creation rather than consumption in ALL subject areas, including the humanities and liberal arts.  I realize this is a rather simplistic synopsis, and obviously there are other economic and global factors.  But being an elementary teacher, I chose to stick to some basic classroom aspects of STEM.  I will say this though, there is no doubt we have been lacking in preparing our students for careers in STEM-based fields.  For example, Broadcom, the nation's largest producer of chips for wireless communications, must hire a large number of engineers from outside the U.S. because the company cannot find enough qualified candidates at home.  Paula Golden, executive director of Broadcom Foundation, which promotes science education, states, "At Broadcom, it's painfully apparent that the talent we need to inspire and innovate is coming from elsewhere.  It's not a cost-effective way of doing business," she said.  "But it's difficult to find other alternatives."  I am sure Broadcom isn't the only company in this predicament.  Again, STEM is working to fulfill a clear need.

Looking at coding and programming in particular, which has received a great deal of attention recently with the "Hour of Code," Software Developer and Coding Instructor Brent Kollmansberger makes some excellent points regarding K-12 education.  " is the main organization that has been successfully promoting teaching coding in the school system.  They have never suggested deemphasizing the humanities - nor have I heard others doing so.  If anything, coding, animation, image editing, and film making are all technical fields that are also forms of artistic expression."  Kollmansberger goes on to remind us, "Besides, a bachelor's degree in the humanities does not preclude a master's or a doctorate in a more technical field should one be desired."  No one in this field is arguing for deemphasizing the humanities or the liberal arts.  If anything, STEM fields and the humanities and liberal arts need each other in a large number of careers.

I almost stopped reading Zakaria's article when I got to the part about international standardized test comparisons.  It is a commonly known and widely researched fact that when you remove poverty from the equation, American students fare as well or better than other countries in international comparisons.  The fact that this is left out makes me question Zakaria's intentions.  He certainly knows about the poverty issue.  He wrote an article about it back in 2012.  Was this information intentionally left out?  Or have those final dots not been connected?  I doubt that.  Again, it's not a matter of what our students can do, it's a question of improving instruction, and ensuring all students receive the best instruction.  We can always improve, and we had some holes that STEM is working to fill.

When one looks at the actual numbers, well, get ready to breathe a sigh of relief.  The sky isn't falling.  According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the humanities are doing just fine.  A few key findings:
  • While there were fluctuations in the percentages of students completing humanities majors between the 1940s and 1970s, it seems safe to say those numbers are pre-STEM.  We can't blame STEM on those drops.
  • Current data indicate the percentage of humanities degrees increased through the 1980s and 90s, with a slight decline in the 2000s, then rising again, with a slight drop again during the Great Recession.  Overall the numbers have been steady.
  • And even though humanities have decreased as a percentage of all degrees, there has been an increase in the percentage of Americans with humanities degrees.
What is especially interesting in the AACU report relates to the last point.  It is this finding by Nate Silver: "Nate Silver has noted that the same pattern applies not only to the humanities, but also to many social science and STEM fields.  Between 1971 and 2011, the percentage of degrees in mathematics, engineering, and history all declined as shares of all college degrees even as the percentage of college-age students earning these degrees increased - a phenomenon Silver attributes to rising enrollments in occupational fields such as health and criminal justice that had not previously offered or required college degrees."  It seems the landscape is very complex indeed.

Zakaria writes, "No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write."  Of course you do.  All I could think of when I read this was, "Did you even talk to any teachers before you wrote this article?"  I mean, seriously.  Who is arguing otherwise?  Besides crazy governors?  Certainly not teachers.

And that's my issue.  Why do people like Fareed Zakaria listen to the likes of Rick Scott, Patrick McCrory, and Rick Perry?  Why is anyone listening to these people when it comes to educational policy?  I'll tell you why.  Because teachers do not have a seat at the table.  And just like everyone else, Zakaria didn't talk to one teacher when he wrote this article.  Not one.  He's just as bad as they are.  He is part of the problem.  He is listening to these people, and giving them power.  By highlighting and responding to their commentary in his article, Zakaria gives their message credence, as if what they have to say about education is even worth listening to at all.  I know that wasn't the intent, but such a response certainly gives that impression.  What if we all just stopped listening to people like Scott, McCrory, and Perry, and started listening to TEACHERS?  Newsflash: If Zakaria had spoken to teachers, he would have found out the future of the liberal arts and humanities is safe and sound.  If you look at the numbers and facts, you can see its present certainly is.  Teachers may get stepped on a lot, but we would never let STEM take over to the detriment of the humanities and liberal arts.  Does Zakaria really think we would stand for that?  Thanks for the vote of confidence.

It's all getting so tiresome, isn't it?

(Note: After I wrote this, I realized the article probably contains the highlights of Zakaria's latest book, and I wondered.  Did he talk to any teachers during the writing of his book?  If he did, that's great.  Too bad they didn't make the cut for the article.  They clearly didn't influence it; there seems to be an agenda there.  If he didn't speak to any teachers, shame on him.)

Works Cited
"Humanities by the Numbers." Association of American Colleges & Universities. N.p., 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 02 May 2015.
Leal, Fermin. "Science, Tech Preparation Lagging in U.S. Schools." The Orange County Register. N.p., 20 Aug. 2012. Web. 04 May 2015.
Silver, Nate. "As More Attend College, Majors Become More Career-Focused." FiveThirtyEight. N.p., 25 June 2013. Web. 02 May 2015. 
Zakaria, Fareed. "Why America's Obsession with STEM Education Is Dangerous." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Apr. 2015. Web. 02 May 2015. 
Zakaria, Fareed. "Zakaria: Mitt, You Need to Worry about the Very Poor." Global Public Square RSS. N.p., 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 02 May 2015.

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