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The Fallacy Of Raising The Bar

Even though Intel employs 9,700 in its Arizona semiconductor facilities, the condition of K-12 education there makes me believe it would be foolish to invest another dime there.

There is a new education reform coming and it is getting a lot of attention by the media. No, it is not making sure that no child is left behind, or reducing high school drop out rates, or even getting student grades up to international standards.

The newest educational emergency is known by the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Manufacturing and the high-technology industries desperately need students who have been educated in STEM classes. A national organization called Change the Equation, which is comprised of 111 CEOs, has done a state-by-state investigation of kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education. The group has found that students in all grades are doing poorly in STEM education.

According to Craig Barrett, the chairman of the organization, what the report reveals should alarm elected officials, policymakers, students and parents across the country. He makes his point by saying “even though Intel employs 9,700 people in its semiconductor manufacturing and research facilities in Arizona, the condition of K-12 education in the state, particularly STEM, makes me believe that it would be foolish to invest another dime in the state.” The answer the organization proposes is to raise the bar again and create new standards based on STEM learning.

The new standards for science, technology, engineering and math are not yet finalized, but you can get a peek at them here. It is obvious by looking at the spreadsheets on this website that there are going to be many more classes in STEM subjects and the subject matter will be taught in greater depth.

Yes, it is another attempt to raise the bar. What bothers me about raising the bar by creating higher proficiency standards is that nobody really spends a lot of time defining the special problems of the students, much less what they will do with the students who fail the new standards. People tend to rush to follow the latest education movement, but they never go back and really examine the socio-economic and other student problems holding the kids and teachers back.

I think the idea of getting kids more proficient in science, technology and math is a splendid idea. Having spent 35 years in manufacturing, I know first-hand why the future workers in manufacturing need to have a better education with more science and math classes to compete in the 21st Century. But I am also a realist, and have a lot of questions and doubts about education reform.

I assume from the comments made by the government, the Department of Education and the partnership of CEOs that they would like to raise the bar and emphasize STEM in all public schools in grades K-12. There are 18,435 high schools in the U.S. with approximately 16.3 million students. To see how another new reform like STEM learning would work for all of these students and schools, it is helpful to examine the problems and needs in terms of student groups. California uses the STAR Standardization tests to categorize students into three groups based on historical outcomes of high school students. These categories are useful in trying to make some sense of all 16.3 million high school students in the U.S.:

  1. Below basic or dropouts. These are students who drop out of school, did not get enough credits or pass enough tests to graduate
  2. Basic or general track. These are students who do graduate from high schoo,l but do not qualify to go to a public university.
  3. Above basic or university track. These are the students who graduate and have the credits, grade and test scores to qualify for a four-year university.

These are not homogeneous groups of students. Each group has its share of drop-out, disengaged and bright students. I use these general groups to make the point that the groups are composed of different students with very different needs and problems.

The history of implementing education reforms has been, at best, a mixed bag of success and failure. The reason is that education reformers decide that current education results are not acceptable, then they decide on a solution based on what they would like to see happen, and then they try to implement the reform without adequately researching the problems of the three groups. It appears that STEM learning is destined to become a reform for all students. Here are some examples which lead me to this assumption:

Craig Barrett, in the article It’s Time to Stop Lying to Students and Parents and Raise Our Education Standards, wants to raise the bar for all schools. He says, “The solution starts with establishing realistic and challenging proficiency standards. We need our leaders, particularly governors, to stiffen their backs, fight against complacency, and raise and create uniform standards.

“U.S. Senator Mark Warner appeared in a video to say schools must train students in STEM to remain competitive with other nations. The challenge is to involve children in their middle schools years, especially girls and minorities.”

Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is the founder of the LEAP University Academy Charter School in Camden, NJ, and she thinks STEM learning can be used to help students in urban schools escape the cycle of poverty.

Arkansas Congressman Tim Griffin announced that he will introduce a bill to use STEM learning to help highly skilled immigrants stay in the country.

Representative Mike Honda from Silicone Valley introduced a STEM Education Innovation Act of 2011 (H.R. 3373) to forge a national mission on STEM education. His STEM Education Act “ensures that American classrooms are squarely on the cutting edge.”

The Texas Instruments Foundation has partnered with the North Texas Lancaster Independent School District to systematically change science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels in the district over four years.”

Senator Tom Harkin, a democrat from Iowa, has been working on the new ESEA authorization bill, which will modify or replace the No Child Left Behind legislation to both tackle the problems of literac,y and to introduce STEM education to replace the existing math and science programs in the nation’s schools.

I could go on with examples, but I think you see the message. This new STEM educational reform is not only expected to make all students better at math and science, it is expected to do everything from solving literacy problems to lifting students out of poverty. The premise of this article is that none of these well-intentioned reformers have explained how all of these new reforms will work for all students and groups.

Prescription Before Diagnosis

In examining the research that led to STEM reform, it appears that it was mostly quantitative based on historical performance and test scores for each grade. I could not find any quantitative research defining the specific problems and barriers of the students This mistake is what I call deciding on the prescription (STEM) before doing a good diagnosis (research on the student groups).

If you were taken into the hospital emergency room with terrible pain in your stomach, you wouldn’t want the doctor to simply give you a pill and send you home. This would be deciding on the answer without a real diagnosis, which is what I fear is happening with STEM. The reformers have decided the answer to our education problems is a big helping of science, technology, engineering and math because that is what employers want and we need in this country — but not necessarily what all students can accomplish.

Raising the bar assumes that all students can somehow rise to the occasion, but the approach never seems to address the question of what if some students can’t or won’t respond.

Changing STEM Standards to Fit the Problems

I think before making a decision on new standards for all students, it is worth taking a hard look at each of the three student groups in terms of what they are willing or capable of doing before we raise the bar.

Below Basic or Dropouts

Let’s begin with the problems of the many public high schools in poverty zones. These problems are most severe in the group labeled below basic or dropouts. This group of students is dominated by inner city schools and poverty-stricken regions.

A good example in my hometown of Portland, OR — Roosevelt High School. Both the city and the state have introduced many reforms (including raising performance standards), which did not appreciably improve scores. At Roosevelt High School, almost 80 percent of the students qualify for the federal free and reduced meals program, and almost 25 percent meet the federal definitions of homelessness. A survey found that 34 percent of the students have a parent who is currently or was previously incarcerated, and 29 percent of the students say there isn’t enough food at home.

Have you ever asked yourself how in the world teachers ever got trapped into teaching kids who suffer from families with mental illness, substance abuse, hunger, homelessness and parent neglect? We are making teachers responsible for societal and poverty problems, and all of the reforms, and raising of standards is not going to help the students and teachers who must first deal with these problems.

Elizabeth Walters, a public school teacher in Louisiana, knows the problems of the basic dropout group of kids. During a rally outside the legislature in Baton Rouge, Walters said, “Perhaps most importantly, one of the best ways to improve public education would be to work to alleviate those factors that are beyond the teacher’s control, which affect the student’s ability to learn. They are some of the factors that led to Louisiana’s dismal Kids Count rating — unemployment, poverty, violence, crime rates, family instability, childhood hunger, access to health care.”

Nora Lehnhoff is the Social Services program manager for Roosevelt High School and right in the middle of all student problems. Her background is in social services, not education, and she has worked for community-based organizations (CBOs) in the Portland area for 30 years.

Before Lehnhoff was hired, Roosevelt had the lowest graduation rate in the state and very poor performance scores. The Portland Public School System had tried all kinds of reforms, such as training on educational equity, classroom management techniques, standards-based teaching and implementation of professional learning communities.

Lehnhoff convinced the school to take a different approach that addressed the socio-economic problems of the students, first, as a means to improve proficiency standards. She recruited outside partners to have offices in the school to address drug and alcohol, mental health, daycare and other issues, and coordinators to help homeless students, or arrange liaisons to food banks, shelters and churches. She has also arranged for both food and clothing donations, so that disadvantaged kids can have enough to eat and clothes for free. The outside partners both fund their programs and offer their services at the high school — these services are not in the school budget.

Since implementing these social services, the drop-out rate has decreased, while attendance and test scores have risen. She feels that every school that has these kinds of socio-economic problems should probably have a Social Services director who can find the resources and partners to address these kinds of problems. Lehnhoff asks why is it that teachers inherited all of these social problems, as well as their teaching duties, and they are held accountable for improving education and test scores regardless of the problems of the students?

Introducing a new reform, such as STEM learning to this school would be like raising the bar of the high jump to 6 feet for everyone who wants to graduate. It might be an admirable “stretch goal” for all students, but doesn’t answer the question of what to do with all the kids that cannot clear the new height.

This does not mean that many of the students could not learn STEM concepts. It means that raising the bar and introducing a new concept like STEM learning isn’t going to make a difference until something is done about socio-economic problems for schools like Roosevelt.

General Track Group

The second major group of students is the general track students who are doing just enough to get through high school and get a diploma, but are not easy to define. They do get their high school diploma, but they generally do not meet state standards, and do not have the grades or classes to qualify for a four-year university. About 40 percent of the general track students will try the community college system, and the other 60 percent will go to work or maybe the military. Many of these students who try community colleges drop out in the first year, and most of the people who go to work end up in low-paying service jobs because they lack skills.

This group does not generally know during high school what they want to do after graduation, so they don’t make use of high school by focusing on the courses that will help them. A report from the National Research Council found that 40 to 60 percent of all high school students are disengaged. This is the defining problem of the general track group of students who often are not enthusiastic or interested, and are bored much of the time. They have trouble seeking assistance, participating in class activities and completing their work. They do not want to take difficult classes because they want to just do what it takes to get the diploma.

The problems of boredom, lack of interest and disengagement will still be a problem in the general track group regardless of what STEM reformers think they will do implementing their new curriculums. Many of these disengaged students will not learn enough to handle the STEM subjects and may need remedial courses before taking more difficult courses. I think it is safe to say that raising the standard (or bar) on this group is not going to work unless the reformers can find new ways to get these students engaged.

Another important thing to keep in mind when implementing new reform is to have a plan B. Manufacturers are very interested in students who are good at math, reading and science, but they are also interested in people who have specific skill sets such as computer-aided design (CAD) drawing, programming, machining, etc. It might be more practical to get the students to focus on a vocation and specific skills early on for those who do not or cannot take STEM classes, along with the remedial classes that the skills require.

This can be done by suggesting vocations in terms of a job description and how much the person is paid per hour as an entry-level employee and after five years in the job. I know a young girl who is studying nursing and one of the primary reasons she chose this career in high school is because she found out that they can make $30 per hour after receiving their certification.

Knowing potential earnings might motivate students to take classes that will help them in their goal rather then taking the easiest classes to get a diploma. This plan B assumes that STEM learning may not work on many of the general trackers, and the alternative would be to use specific vocations to help them to do better in high school and to get a better job.

University Track

The last group is the university track students who do so well in their exams, grades and classes that they qualify for a four-year university. What can you say about these students? They are motivated, engaged, interested and seemingly able to master any material you throw at them. I think this group will easily adapt to any kind of new standards or curriculum changes introduced by the STEM enthusiasts. This group is already taking the hardest classes, and 809,000 of them are taking international baccalaureate (IB) college-level classes.

If you want to replace IB classes with STEM curriculums, you will have to offer the same incentive, which is college credit. If they are not enrolled in IB classes, but have achieved all of the standards to be accepted into a four-year university, the solution seems obvious. In their case, you simply have to change the standards and curriculums required by the universities to include STEM learning concepts

I accept the fact that a tidal wave of educational reform is coming at schools, teachers and students, and it is called STEM. The premise of this article is that before demanding that all 16.3 million high schools students participate in STEM, it might be wise to do some quantitative research that defines the problems and obstacles of various groups of students.

In 1971, the research of a Yale psychologist, Seymour Sarason, argued that school reform efforts were bound to fail if they ignored cultural problems, and only focused on altering structure and curriculum. I think Sarason has been proven right on this assumption over and over again in the last decade.

I must repeat, as a retired manufacturer, I love the idea of getting students to study more science, technology, math and engineering. The more the kids know about STEM subjects, the better chance that we can grow the U.S. manufacturing industries and be more competitive. But I have some serious doubts as well. In fact, it may be better to require all students to take a test, or complete basic reading, writing and mathematic courses as a pre-requisite to getting into STEM courses. Enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach for all students and groups will probably not work for many students and schools, and proponents of STEM learning should ready with a plan B alternative.

What’s your take? Please feel free to leave a comment below. Michael P. Collins is the author of the book Saving American Manufacturing. You can find more related articles on his website via

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