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What Grade Should U.S. K-12 Schools Get for STEM Education?


STEM education events have an interesting way of bringing together people from multiple sectors—policymakers, business professionals, scientists, engineers, professors, federal and state officials, district administrators, K-12 teachers, etc.

An event held Sept. 10 at the Washington Post on K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math instruction was no different. My table alone had attendees from the Mitre Corporation, Fairfax County public schools, Georgetown University, and the Biochemical Society.

The Post's Nick Anderson kicked off an expert panel on closing education gaps by asking what grade the U.S. K-12 education system should get for STEM education. 

"The challenge is there are two grades," said John King, a deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. "In some places, we should get an A, and in some places we should get a D."

While students in high-income schools are winning Intel competitions, doing college-level research, and creating apps and inventions, many schools with majority African-American populations "don't even offer Algebra 2," he said. "The challenge for the department is how to go from excellence for some to excellence for all."

Kaya Henderson, the District of Columbia public schools chancellor, said it was too early in the STEM education era to offer a grade. "We've only recently begun to say STEM is important," she said. "We've just started to take the class and haven't finished taking it, so there's no grade yet."

Michael Lomax, the president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, who was also on the panel, answered succinctly. "F!" he said.

"Clearly if you're a high-income kid in this country, you're in a B or above school. If you're a low-income kid in this country, you're in a failing school," he added. "What we know is that low-income kids can learn, but not if nobody teaches them."

Closing STEM Gaps

The conversation moved to improvement efforts, and King mentioned the department's First in the World grant program, which aims to make college more affordable and get more low-income and minority students to enroll in and complete STEM majors. The president has requested additional funding for the program in his budget proposal. "I hope we can convince Congress to make that investment," King said. "A lot will be told in the next few months as we see how we get through this budget process."

Henderson described a new initiative in D.C. public schools to get high-quality, cross-curricular lessons, including for STEM, in all classrooms. The Cornerstones initiative requires teachers to periodically use prewritten lessons developed by teachers, many of which emphasize inquiry and hands-on learning. 

According to Henderson, this is a fundamental change in how professional development is done—from a focus on pedagogy to a focus on content. 

"We believe that if we just had more time to train people, teachers would be able to do the 790 things they need to do. But that's just not true," she said. "We need to focus on ... content expertise. ... We're shifting from here's how to teach to really looking at student work, and how do I teach this lesson."

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