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STEM Seals for High School Diplomas Aren't Enough

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There are two types of students. Those who do well and those who wish they did well. In mathematics, particularly, there is a societal acceptance when even college-graduated adults shrug their shoulders and admit, "I'm just not good at math."  Few would admit, "I'm just not a good reader." But some do reveal, "I don't enjoy or partake in reading except when I have to". As the focus on subjects and tests overshadow the objectives of developing life-long learners, these are the results.  Now with a growing and exciting focus on the STEM subjects, once again it appears there can be a misplaced emphasis.

States are considering, and some have already, adopted rules that allow for STEM endorsements on diplomas.  They are based on students' achievement in the four subjects. On the surface, one would think that is a good thing. It is an acknowledgment of success.  Students are encouraged to take advanced courses in the science, technology, engineering and math while schools are encouraged to offer more of them. Stephen Sawchuk reported in his Education Week article, States Adopt STEM Seals for High School Diplomas:

In addition to Colorado, Nevada's legislature in 2017 passed legislation creating "STEM seals" for diplomas, while Ohio's state board of education adopted rules late last year for a STEM diploma endorsement. And two populous states, California and Michigan, flirted with the idea of awarding special recognition to graduates in STEM, in 2015 and 2016, respectively, but did not enact legislation. Hawaii, New York, and Texas also offer some kind of STEM credential for high school students.

Who does this effort excite?  Businesses, advanced students, their parents, teachers who have wanted to teach those advanced courses, communities that want the prestige of a reputation of graduating students with diplomas that indicate they have mastered advanced learning in STEM courses. They comprise a powerful group of advocates for the idea. It is an important step forward for our schools. In fact, the legislation in Colorado came from two educators according to Sawchuk's article.

"It was so valuable for educators to be in the thick of it all, because if a lawmaker had come up with the idea, they might have put in criteria that wouldn't have been as rigorous," Menardi said, noting the high grade point average students must maintain to earn the seal.

We are excited that educators stepped forward to design forward-thinking legislation in support of advancing student achievement.  Well done. Yet, we believe there is still is a piece missing. Coupled with increased opportunities for students who can excel in STEM subjects, there could be, and, we assert, should be, STEM centric revision of all teaching from Kindergarten through high school. Only then will all students benefit for the energy that STEM creates and potentially grow into those who surprise all by obtaining the diploma seal.

STEM seals for diplomas are the end of the line, the exit seal of approval. But what of the students who were lost along the way, who didn't have the belief in their ability, who were not natural at these subjects?  We believe, as many readers already know, there is a much bigger value to STEM learning than a focus on four stand-alone subjects. Many have stepped out and called for attention to STEAM, (including the arts) and one school district we know has called it STREAM (including research). The truth is there is no limit to creativity when implementing a true STEM shift into a school and district. 

What Does STEM Truly Offer?

The beauty of what STEM has to offer learning environments is it harkens back to what most teachers, even those who teach our youngest children, yearn to do with their students. Teachers work hard to earn that moment when a students has the 'aha' look on their face, when they master a skill, and then when they transfer it. STEM, not the subjects themselves, but the way they exist in service to each other is where the magic lives.  When students are called upon to solve problems that require skills that they have, it is like a quest in a video game. It holds attention, encourages risk taking, diminishes uncertainty and calls for rapt attention. When projects are the vehicle for the learning, and the problems to be solved are real and access to both teaching and field professionals are included, students learn.  Schools that have shifted to that model have seen immediate results.

At the same time schools consider adding advanced classes and initiate STEM seals for their diplomas, they should also build capacity for all students. Without focus on growing the capacity of all students, the gaps will continue to grow and so will the readiness for college and career.  We support the work schools, districts, and states are doing to motivate, develop and recognize STEM achievement. We encourage everyone to go the distance. STEM advances learning for all, everyone finds a place in the STEM exploration, both students who do well and those who have always wished they did. STEM is generating an opportunity for us to seize a moment and grow a generation of successful lifelong learners and future leaders.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools.  Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay 

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