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Milwaukee wins $20 million for STEM curriculum overhaul

By guest blogger Sarah D. Sparks

As education officials continue to debate the definition of "college and career readiness," private philanthropies, particularly those linked to business, are taking a more direct hand in how schools prepare their future workforce.

In the latest example, Wisconsin's Milwaukee Public Schools today announced it has won a five-year, $20 million grant from the GE Foundation, the philanthropic arm of General Electric Co., to overhaul its math and science curriculum. The 82,000-student district is the seventh chosen for the foundation's Developing Futures in Education initiative, following Atlanta; Cincinnati, Ohio; Erie, Pa.; Jefferson County, Ky.; New York City, and Stamford, Conn.

Developing Futures aims to align district math and science curriculum and teacher professional development to the international science, technology, engineering and math job market. In 2005, an Urban Institute study commissioned by the GE Foundation reported that only 18 of 89 math curricula and 21 of 80 science curricula for middle and high schools had valid evaluations showing their effectiveness in raising student achievement in those subjects.

Milwaukee has such curricular problems, the district's chief academic officer, Heidi A. Ramìrez, told me. In 8th-grade math alone, the district uses nine different textbooks and curricular programs. GE Healthcare's presence in the city prompted the foundation to partner with the district to upgrade both its curriculum and teacher training, she said.

"They have a clear idea around what innovation the world expects and needs from our workforce," Ms. Ramìrez told me, "and translating that back to our teachers' professional development and learning experiences inside the classroom will be incredibly helpful."

That's not to say it will be enough; Ms. Ramìrez estimates new textbook materials alone will cost $10 million in the next two to three years. Yet the grant will be a "shot in the arm" and a way to get Milwaukee's business community involved in the school district's STEM program, she said.

As a condition of the grant, Milwaukee schools will work with GE volunteers, "who will commit time and resources for special mathematics and science projects involving real-world scenarios and problem solving," according to a company statement.

"GE understands that America's position as a leader in innovation and industry depends on the strength of today's students and our education system," said Bob Corcoran, president and chairman of the GE Foundation in the statement. "Developing Futures is an important commitment to bolstering math and science education in our schools, equipping students with skills to continue in higher education and become leaders in the global economy."

The White House has pushed for closer collaboration between schools and business-related groups, particularly for teacher professional development and student mentoring in critical career fields.

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