May 5, 2016

Panic is not a good motive for STEM education reform

On the front cover of the proverbial Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are written, in large, friendly letters, the words “Don’t Panic.” Unfortunately, much of the past decade’s STEM education rhetoric, words which have guided a transformation in how STEM subjects are taught, has taken a pass on that wise advice.

Advice on the cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

I am a science nerd, through and through. As a kid I took things apart and sometimes got them back together, but I needed to know how they worked. Lots of kids are like me, and I think that the world will be a better place if we can encourage them to keep exploring. Those kids are the next generation of scientists and technological innovators.

Much has been said in the last decade about the importance of STEM education. It’s important to inspire kids, especially in high school, but we have to do it for the right reasons, and I think that’s where we’ve gone off course. These thoughts are an attempt to bust some myths that pervade thinking on STEM education reform, underlying motivations that are just wrong and could lead to reforms that are actually counterproductive. At any rate, it seems like we ought to do things for the right reasons.

Myth 1 – A shortage of graduates trained in STEM fields plagues the American workforce.

It is to the financial advantage of STEM-centered businesses to have an over-abundant workforce. Increasing the supply of qualified workers reduces labor costs, so we should always be skeptical about claims of short labor supply. They arise at least partly out of the (understandable) economic self interest of the business community.

The claim of a shortage of STEM workers has not held up to recent scrutiny. In his book, Falling Behind: Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Harvard Law Professor Michael Teitelbaum wrote that the US “produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are [STEM] job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more.”

This figure from an article titled “The STEM Crisis is a Myth” in the journal IEEE Spectrum (Aug. 2013) further illustrates the point:

In a May 2015 article titled “STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes,” the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics took a multifaceted look at the question of STEM worker supply. Their conclusion was that in certain niche fields, there are indeed labor shortages, but on average, the US is queuing up a surplus of STEM-trained workers. What K-12 educators must understand is that training for niche jobs almost always comes well after high school. The job of high schools is to provide a survey of the sciences as a necessary foundation for any STEM career. Depending on the students, of course, that survey can often dwell quite deeply in a subject. It is the job of universities, businesses and self-motivated individuals, however, to provide more specialized training to highly motivated individuals who will fill niche jobs.

Myth 2: The US is in danger of being unable to compete in a globally-connected world.

Authors like Tony Wagner and Thomas Friedman have made a lot of money sounding sirens about how the US could soon lose ground to economic and entrepreneurial competition from other nations, mainly in the STEM fields. Humans are hard-wired to respond to fear (wait, did I hear a sabertooth tiger?), so the rhetoric of these authors has been effective. But their claims are difficult to prove. Just because we can be made to feel afraid that something might happen (it’s actually easy to do) doesn’t mean it’s likely to.

At the risk of a little hubris, it’s worth remembering that the US has been the entrepreneurial leader of our world for more than 100 years, and it still is. American inventions are still adopted or copied by people and cultures around the world. Our educational diversity has created melting pots of effort focused on solving the most difficult problems. We nurture and encourage thinking differently. The real danger would be in running away from that guiding philosophy.

Modern educational reforms (to which independent schools are not immune) seek to standardize education, to make sure that all educators teach using the same toolbox of techniques, and teach the same subjects at the same times, so that all students pass the same standardized exams to prove that they’ve learned exactly the same things.

We seem to want to wring from our school children every bit of the educational diversity that made us the world’s idea generators, that once took us to the Moon.

There is nothing wrong (and everything right, in my view) with chemistry students converging in college with significantly different backgrounds in the study of chemistry. If they know the basics and can learn, the field will be better for that diversity. Good ideas often arise from states of maximum entropy.

Myth 3: The US lags behind competitor nations in tests of math and science knowledge, like PISA, TIMSS and NAEP

Fear also dominates conversations about these standardized test results; we don’t want to lose the international education Olympics, yet we hate perpetually placing out of the top ten in math, science and reading on these tests. What is wrong with us?

A critical look at the data, however, reveals at least one key flaw in the analysis: Compared to our competitor nations, the US educates a greater proportion of children from lower socioeconomic classes, and we know that there is a high correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement (and further, that economic status couples strongly to race/ethnicity). That we aren’t yet where we need to be in our quest for equality of opportunity is our failure as a society, of which education is a part, but not wholly a failure of our educational system.

Our national efforts to educate and offer equal opportunities to all children ought to be a source of great pride, yet these days we express mainly regret about our test scores, tacitly blaming lower-class families for our “failure.” We ought to do everything we can as a nation to improve the outlook for those in the lower socioeconomic strata, but that can’t be motivated by competitiveness on multiple-choice tests of knowledge. Unfortunately, responsibility for fixing these problems, real and falsely contrived, has been laid at the feet of educators, while scholars like Jonathan Kozol have rightly pointed out for decades that the problem is much deeper, and that the national willingness to do the hard things required usually loses out to the self interest of more privileged groups.

If winning the international Olympics of standardized testing is our goal, then we navigate a complex world with a bad (and overly-simplistic) map, and that is a much bigger risk to our kids than coming in second in a race to see who gets higher test scores. International tests are a poor metric of how we care for our young people.

Myth 4: The world is changing more rapidly now than at any time in the past. We cannot now conceive of the jobs of the future

A colleague of mine points out that the 1950’s was a time of tremendous change, viz.: telephones and televisions in every home, a revolution in automation, the interstate highway system, passenger aviation, Brown v. Board of Education, exodus to suburbs, the credit card, the transistor, nuclear power, the hydrogen bomb, and more … Few in the 1940s dreamed that communication by satellite would be possible by 1962.

Every decade is one of upheaval in some sense. It’s always that way. Things are never like they used to be, and they never will be. In every decade, there are jobs and inventions just beyond the horizon of the public imagination. Education simply needs to be general enough for graduates to be able to adapt, invent and reinvent. If we manage that, our students will welcome change and uncertainty as opportunity and challenge.

What may be changing for our current students in a way we’ve yet to fully comprehend might be classified as population-related issues. We now have a tremendous responsibility as educators to teach our kids about things like carrying capacity, the potential consequences of mass extinction, and anthropogenic climate change – without blaming them for problems our generations created. These may be the changes that prove most rapid and destructive to the world our students will inherit. The latest UN climate change review of literature notes with 90% statistical confidence that today’s kindergärtners will see Miami’s fresh water table inundated with sea water while they are alive. As of mid December, there was a 99% statistical probability that 2015 will be the hottest month recorded on Earth [update - that turned out to be true], and as of November 2015, there are only three white rhinos left alive.

– Jeff Cruzan, May 2016



means Science, Technonlogy, Engineering & Mathematics

Recently, the term STEAM has come into use, tipping a cap to the (A) Arts.

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