In the 21st Century, social networking spaces are permeating work places and learning environments; and we are not simply talking about the popular mainstream social networks like Facebook. Teachers and students are more likely to seek out platforms that support the establishment of networks that offer the privacy, safeguards, peer-to-peer connections, teacher to student connections, and parental and business community engagement. Furthermore, social network platforms in education ought to support resource sharing that meets specific instructional needs, conclusions drawn based on my experience with thousands of teachers and students across the globe.
While a lot of teachers and students are on Facebook, similarly useful for keeping in touch with peers and connections is CSTEMbreak. A social network for teachers and students that engages and supports the sharing of information around STEM learning, research, projects, scholarships, and internships as well as career and workforce opportunities. In this environment the teachers and students interact while maintaining their perspective roles along the education continuum.
Over the past five years, educators’ use of popular networks like Facebook and Twitter has increased overall, as has their use of platforms like CSTEMbreak. However, one area of challenge is the inability of school systems to evolve with technology, preventing the use of social networks for education. As a result, more teachers and students are inhabiting the internet on educational social networks via mobile technology instead of desk or laptop computers at school. In this way— teachers, students, and other communities continue to experiment and socialize over online networks, enriching their experiences in work places and learning environments.
People are realizing that the “reform movement” dedicated to improving America’s public schools usually begins on the right track, but often gets derailed as evidenced by student outputs. As a result of these outputs, teachers are often left shouldering the blame for underperforming students. Reformists should realize that teachers and teachers’ unions ought not be the sole target of those driving the “reform movement”.
In any given educational system, there exist areas that could use some improvement; however, it does not mean that the entire system is broken. That said, there is no one solution to fix everything, which is why making correlations between the characteristics of a community, its residents, and performance of the schools is a viable step towards achieving real solutions. The teacher horror stories that evolve from isolated situations make for good sound bytes and headlines, and as reality TV has shown us, drama does sell and captures the public’s attention. Unfortunately, blaming teachers has become much easier than addressing sociological and economic problems beyond the walls of the schoolyard.
From one Ward or Barrio to the next, the same curriculum standards are required to be taught just as the same standardized tests are administered. The system lags in exposing students to appropriate grade level content at the appropriate time, and provides no real alternatives to address educating some of the neediest children. There is a great propensity for students from disenfranchised communities, with low employment and high crime rates, showing up on the first day of school unprepared, and who have fallen behind academically, through no fault of the teachers or the teachers’ union. The inability of the teacher to get such students to perform at grade level, will result in them not passing the standardized test, and the school in turn ends up receiving a negative report card, and the teacher eventually bears the brunt of the blame.
The tendency to cast aspersions on teachers totally misses the mark. Looking at today’s 21st Century STEM curriculum, as compared to the questions asked on standardized tests; it is clear the academic system is missing the mark. One observation is the standards set for underperforming schools are higher than people realize, and students are being challenged significantly more than when you and I were in grade school. In an era when our schools were regarded as competitive, great places of learning, teachers were afforded the opportunity of being the best they could be without cumbersome testing requirements or classes full of unprepared students from disconnected parents.
Funding STEM Education Programs
In a letter written by Greg Babe, President and CEO of Bayer Corporation, he reports that their survey of Fortune 1000 and emerging high-tech company CEO’s shows that they “get it”. In so many words, these organizations realize that diversity, which encompasses ethnic-minorities and females, is essential to the sustainability and competitiveness of STEM industries. Greg’s conclusion fits right in line with a position I have often stated, that it is imperative for private industry to partner with public programs that demonstrate a sustainable program model, have historical data showing program outcomes over time, and are scalable in a way that program impact can grow commensurate with the financial investment.
Past experience has shown us that effective private-public collaborations can work in a synchronistic fashion towards a common goal. Corporations willing to invest both capital and sweat equity in the non-profits they support are better able to achieve intended outcomes. And in the case of developing a STEM workforce, related industries should be investing for the long haul in public K-12 STEM programs. Fortune 1000 companies are just that because their business model supports growth and meets the market’s demands; they make smart investments in the people and resources that help the organization operate on all cylinders.
Around 2006, we began to witness an emerging market of public programs focused on STEM education programming, and in 2009 President Obama’s State of the Union Address further cemented STEM education as a national priority. Since then, organizations with no prior experience in STEM education have developed STEM programs to fit this trend, while still working to fulfill their core mission. This led to an explosion of programs creating STEM initiatives for the sole purpose of securing any available funding, without any real commitment or capacity to sustain these initiatives. Some of this change was as a result of an internal push to ‘move with the cheese’, and for others it was the external push by corporations who shifted their education investment dollars towards STEM programming.
Many including myself, are increasingly concerned about the continual problems we face in education, despite billions of dollars being spent towards solutions seeking a problem to solve at the federal, state, and local level. People are rightfully beginning to ask, “why do we continue to have the same problems in education, particularly issues of reducing the achievement gap among ethnic-minority and females in STEM, despite all the money being spent”?
The answer in my opinion is simple: the longer we continue to fund initiatives with no track record of success, the further the deepening of the education crisis becomes. It is time we focus on proven solutions, and developing them to a point where they are sustainable and brought to scale. These solutions are found in programs that are successful at engaging both teachers and students in STEM collaboratively, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that these successful models are heavily championed, rather than being glossed over for the next NEW thing.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the highly publicized education reform effort championed by the George Bush administration, has not been synonymous with school improvement. The involvement of the federal government in education at the state and local levels has not translated to improved student and teacher performance, rather NCLB put into place rigid guidelines that were not equitably funded across all schools.
While teacher’s work toward meeting unrealistic federally mandated school performance ratings, creativity and innovation have continued to leave the classroom. Federal test mandates are so onerous in their implementation at the school level that the focus has shifted from education innovation to test prep for an exam that no college or university recognize as part of the admissions requirement. The inability of the federal government to manage K-12 education is further proven in the tens of thousands of “failing” public schools, labeled as such because they are not measuring up with standardized test scores; this problem is particularly high in predominantly minority serving schools.
Over the last decade, each state as mandated by the federal government has held schools accountable to assessments that were never required to align with or link to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); the NAEP exam is the standard most often referred to when comparing how we fare academically as a nation. Furthermore, though certain interpretation of statistical performance data suggest that our students are performing well; however, the drop-out rate continues to rise, direct admissions into a four year college/university is on the decline, and minority students continue to perform at levels below their White and Asian counterparts.
What we need is an accountability system that is connected to measures that indicate college readiness, such as the SAT/ACT. Many of the standardized tests put into place as a result of NCLB have only been sufficient for meeting minimal high school graduation standards, but not college or STEM workforce ready standards for many students graduating high school. This has resulted in schools graduating an increasing number of students lacking basic analytical and problem-solving skills.
What all this has taught us is that for federal education policies to be successful, it must be supported by research led by essential questions aimed at determining how to drive student achievement and teacher performance. Policies that are implemented then have to be accompanied with the proper framework and financial resources required to deliver effective programming and desired outcomes. This represents the type of education reform schools, across the country, can rally behind, as it would be aligned with the specific needs of the school community, as opposed to forcing a one-size-fits-all approach to getting all students college and career ready upon graduation from high school. Without taking these critical measures, the federal government might one day face the realization that it is too far removed from where the work is getting done at the school level, and that implementing such sweeping mandates is a task much too difficult to manage from the top down.