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Odds and Ends: A TFA Grant, a "STEM" Bill, and Tech Inequity

A couple items worth catching up on today:

The medical-technology corporation Medtronic Inc., will provide a $1.4 million grant to support Teach For America’s efforts to find, keep, and train math and science teachers. The award follows an earlier amount of money given by Medtronic in 2007. The latest amount will support additional training for TFA educators through online resources and other means, according to a statement from Medtronic. The money will also pay for the possible expansion of TFA’s program in Minnesota this year and to enhance ongoing efforts in Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., where Medtronic, which is headquartered in Minneapolis, also has facilities. Teach For America, for those not familiar with the program, prepares top graduates of colleges to work in disadvantaged schools for at least two years. The program has seen a surge in the number of applicants recently.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives, by a wide margin, approved a bill designed to improve coordination among federal agencies that support work on science, technology, engineering, and math, or “STEM” education. The “STEM Education Coordination Act of 2009,” was approved by a vote of 353-39. Several federal lawmakers, and President Obama, have said the government should do more to figure out what STEM programs are doing what, by agency, to avoid duplication and increase their effectiveness.

A federal report released a couple years ago said that the federal governments spends about $3 billion annually on STEM education programs, with roughly $570 million devoted specifically to K-12 STEM. Yet little is known about the impact of those programs, the report said.

And finally, Rice University mathematician Richard Tapia argues in an essay that computer-technology programs are not only failing to close achievement gaps, they may be widening them. Tapia's essay, published in Computerworld, is excerpted from an afterword he's written for a book by Jane Margolis, Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. Tapia describes his sometimes difficult journey from the Los Angeles Unified School District through undergraduate and graduate studies in math, and, as I interpret it, says that students need the math and science grounding to use technology effectively. Here's a taste from Tapia's essay:

"Highly touted technology and computer education programs, billed as closing the minority-majority education gap, are not only failing, they are actually widening the gap in a dangerous manner. ...

"A clear message of [Margolis'] book is that better computer science, indeed science, will not come from being stuck in the shallow end, no matter how good the technology is at that end of the pool, because the tools are not being used properly. Minority students in high school are in danger of being made technologically rich but cognitively poor. In the shallow end they are not encouraged to be innovative or to pursue paths leading to high-end technology jobs. Yet this is what the nation so desperately needs. Better technology comes from better science and better science comes from the proper use of better technology. It is a cycle, to be sure, but it need not be a vicious one. Students simply need clearer pathways into it and support once they arrive."

A few sample chapters from Margolis' book are also available online. After you've given both Margolis' and Tapia's arguments a look, let me know what you make of their arguments.

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