Middle Run, White Clay Creek State Park, DESTEM–the combined educational disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics–“was first ‘coined’ as an educational term by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the early 2000s.” [William E. Dugger, circa 2011]

Of course, science and math have long been part of the school curriculum. STEM, then, arose out of the desire to apply science and math in the form of technology and engineering.

More recently, a move has been afoot to introduce a more creative element to STEM in the form of Art. The result, alternately designated STE(A)M (somewhat patronizingly, I contend) or STEAM. Two sites that elaborate on this introduction are STEM to STEAM and STEAM Not STEM. As STEAM Not STEM’s home page suggests, the addition of Art is both for its value and to stave off the decline of art in our K-12 curriculum.

I’m on board with the spirit behind STEM and equally on board with the spirit by the extension to STEAM. But at some point, we run the risk of diluting the attention we’re attempting to draw.

With STEAM, do we really mean to exclude Reading/Literacy (the R in the titular STREAMS) and Social Studies (the S)? And once we include them (and foreign language, and electives, and …), aren’t we just talking education as a whole?

STEM Education is Dangerous?


Fareed Zakaria attempts in his book “In Defense of a Liberal Education” to make the case explicit in its title.

Based on his Washington Post treatment of the subject, he fails.

In a March 26, 2015 opinion piece, “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” in the Washington Post, he writes:

Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.

Zakaria’s critical error lies in his pivot from “liberal education” to what he asserts makes for a success in the global economy.

He cites the following as example elements of a liberal education: anthropology, English, philosophy, ancient Greek, psychology, and sociology. No disagreement there.

And he cites the following as example characteristics of a strong workforce: innovation, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, creativity, flexibility, social skill, confidence, self-esteem, problem solving, critical thinking, writing, design, marketing, and social networking. “Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs,” he claims. Again, no disagreement.

Zakaria goes astray, however, in his inability to show liberal education as the better path to the important workplace characteristics he touts. These characteristics emerge as likely from a “technical” education as from a “liberal” one.

So, let the job market speak. Arguably, in today’s economy, technical jobs offer more openings and command better compensation than liberal ones (absolutely no substance slight to the latter intended). Look to medicine. Look to finance. Look to the biological and information sciences.

But should preparation for the workforce drive education’s primary purpose?

No less an authority than ASCD weighs in. Formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, ASCD serves as “global leader in developing and delivering innovative programs, products, and services that empower educators to support the success of each learner.” In a July 2012 article “What is the Purpose of Education?,” they write:

In the United States, historically, the purpose of education has evolved according to the needs of society. Education’s primary purpose has ranged from instructing youth in religious doctrine, to preparing them to live in a democracy, to assimilating immigrants into mainstream society, to preparing workers for the industrialized 20th century workplace.

And now, as educators prepare young people for their futures in a world that is rapidly changing, what is the goal? To create adults who can compete in a global economy? To create lifelong learners? To create emotionally healthy adults who can engage in meaningful relationships?


Consider the skills that make one successful in the workplace. Critical thinking. Problem solving. Creativity. Teamwork. Communication. Unquestionably, these same skills form the foundation to rapidly change. To globally compete. To continually learn. To meaningfully relate.

Sadly, workplace success offers a tenuous hold in the current economy. A liberal education educates. It fascinates. But as an on-ramp to the workforce, its risk outweighs its reward.

“Job” may sound mundane. But try to imagine a more enabling power. A job puts water in our bodies. Food in our stomachs. A roof over our heads. Medicine in our cabinets. A job–at present, the province of the technical and not the liberal–provides the security and stability to contribute to family, community, and society in the most aspirational of manners.

Racing Superman to Finland

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to view three films that address public education in the United States:

(Still on my list is The Cartel: “Teachers punished for speaking out. Principals fired for trying to do the right thing. Union leaders defending the indefensible. Bureaucrats blocking new charter schools. … The film also introduces us to teens who can’t read, parents desperate for change, and teachers struggling to launch stable alternative schools for inner city kids who want to learn. … Together, these people and their stories offer an unforgettable look at how a widespread national crisis manifests itself in the educational failures and frustrations of individual communities. They also underscore what happens when our schools don’t do their job.”)

Here’s my brief take on Superman and Race, and a lengthier discussion of Finland.

Waiting for Superman

Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim (of Inconvenient Truth fame), follows a handful of students and their families through the process of applying for precious few positions in charter schools. The film in large part frames teacher unions as the problem and charter schools as the solution. Of the three movies, I enjoyed this one the least, and that was by a fair margin. My dislike was not so much because I disagree with the union-charter hypothesis (which in large part I do), but because it struck me as offering no hope.

Race to Nowhere

The message underlying Race is that we overstress our students, with a significant fraction of that stress resulting from homework that often fails to help deliver the educational results we all desire. I came away from this movie much more optimistic, primarily because so much of the proposed remedy (less homework, but more thoughtfully crafted) could be undertaken at the local level. For instance, a teacher, or a principal, or even a superintendent might designate maximum hours per night or week or even “no homework” weekends.

The Finland Phenomenon

Like Race, I enjoyed Finland, although the latter offered less in the way of an achievable solution path. The film examines Finland‘s historically top-rated outcomes on the PISA test (the OECD’s “Programme for International Student Assessment”), which measures student knowledge at age 15 in reading, math, and science. The United States, by comparison, ranks on the order of 20th.

To be sure, Finland as a nation differs dramatically from the United States. With a population less than 5 million, it compares more readily to Minnesota (4th in the US in math, 2nd in reading) in scale while achieving better results than this Scandinavian-settled state. Demographically and socioeconomically, Finland is much less diverse than the US (although “Finnish Language Learners” make up over 16% of the population), and those differences no doubt make the task of education easier. And while MANY in the US VALUE education, EVERYONE in Finland appears to TREASURE it.

Finland began to overhaul its school system in the 1970s when it recognized that its agrarian economy wasn’t sustainable. A major emphasis of this overhaul was on teacher capability. Today, prospective Finnish teachers must pass a rigorous test to gain admittance to their teaching colleges–9 of 10 are turned away. The few who accepted into highly coveted slots then complete a five-year program that yields a master’s degree.

Once employed in a school (and embraced by their strong union), new teachers find themselves both challenged and supported by master teachers. Administrative oversight is light and formal evaluation is nearly non-existent. The result is an environment of “trust through professionalism” that might seem completely foreign to many educators in the US.

Beyond the teacher, Finland has developed a core curriculum at the national level while providing local schools with flexibility in how they implement it. Traditional textbooks are an important part of Finnish schooling, as is educational technology. On the curriculum front, Finland sees as its next task the incorporation of “21st Century skills:” critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and the like.

Relative to the US, Finland schools (which are smaller) …

  • Provide all students an equivalent educational experience
  • Start their students older (age 7)
  • Have students spend less time in school each year
  • Begin the school day later
  • Offer smaller classes
  • Teach in longer lessons
  • Provide more talking time for students in class (60% vs. 20%)
  • Give less homework (3-4 hours per week)
  • Test their students less
  • Value vocational education more highly (45% of students after age 15)
  • Spend less per student each year ($7,500 vs. $8,700)
  • Pay their teachers only slightly more
  • Do little teacher evaluation

As I see it, two differences result in Finland‘s great results: a relatively homogeneous population nearly devoid of poverty and a corps of highly qualified teachers. The US doesn’t appear ready to embrace the former.

As to the latter, following the screening, I asked Harvard researcher Dr. Tony Wagner (the on-screen presence who narrated the story and interviewed numerous educators and students) the following question: “If US schools could offer a ‘trust through professionalism’ environment for educators (a tall task), and if US teaching colleges could offer Finland‘s curriculum (an arguably taller task), would these teaching colleges be able to turn away all but the best 10% of prospective teachers?

Dr. Wagner’s answer was a quick (and expected, and somewhat disheartening) “No.” He elaborated that while Finnish educators earn only somewhat more than their US counterparts, the “best and brightest” in that country aren’t tempted by dramatically higher-paying careers in such fields as law or medicine (pay in Finland for those professions is much closer to that of teachers).

In my opinion, many strong prospective teachers enter the field in the US. Unfortunately, we don’t teach them well in college and we don’t support them well when they go out into K-12 schools. As a result, too many of them burn out, and the most capable of them have options in careers other than teaching.

Finland didn’t show me a clear route to improving education in the United States. But it provides at least some hope by showing that strong outcomes are achievable. Our collective task is to find a path–likely a hybrid of our own ideas and those of other nations–to get us there.

Educator pay and improving student outcomes

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

A study reported on in yesterday’s Boston Globe (9/22/2010) concluded that bonus payments to teachers did not improve student outcomes. There’s enough nuance in the article to make it worth a quick look–I won’t try to capture the pros and cons here.

For the most part, teachers already work hard to improve outcomes. It’s hard to see how the prospect of a distant end of year bonus might cause a teacher to do something different in the classroom on a given day. If we’re going to spend more for improved outcomes (and in the current financial climate, that’s a huge “if”), I think that there’s a better way.

Instead of tying the money to outcomes, I propose putting it toward resources that could affect those outcomes. Namely, I’d spend it on extra professional development. More so than most fields, teachers simply don’t get enough time to learn together and improve their collective craft.

Collaborative in-service training during the school day can be impossible to schedule without using substitutes to cover classroom time, and using substitutes in that way may reduce outcomes as much as improved teacher effectiveness increases them. So, why not pay teachers an hourly rate for extra professional development time outside the school day?

For this to work, of course, the professional development can’t just be a series of one-off seminars–it needs to be cohesively designed to span the school year and tie directly to actions in the classroom.

The value of so-called “21st-century skills”

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

Today’s Boston Globe contained two interesting pieces on so-called 21st-century skills.

I say “so-called” not because I doubt the value of these skills, but rather, take some exception to their being so labeled.

In November of 2007, I attended the “A New Day for Schools” conference held at the UMass Boston campus. As part of the agenda, I sat in on a session entitled, “Integrating 21st Century Skills: Deepening Learning Opportunities and Student Engagement.”

A panelist who worked for Intel spoke of the “employment gap:” those skills valued by employers but too often missing from job candidates (based on a national study of 400 companies).

1. Professionalism/work ethic

2. Written/spoken communication

3. Teamwork/collaboration

4. Critical thinking/problem solving

This list aligns well with the skills cited in the Globe editorial (“media literacy, critical thinking, and working in groups;” “reasoning and problem solving”) and the Globe op-ed (“Think strategically. Use technology. Work collaboratively. Communicate effectively. Recognize how the world around you connects with everything else;” “problem-solving, financial and business literacy, global awareness, and innovation”).

The editorial isn’t so much against these “soft” skills as it is cautious about how teaching them might displace “hard” academics. In particular, the piece lauds how well Massachusetts students perform against the best international students, counseling the state Board of Education to “protect these hard-won gains.” The editorial concludes: “Teachers and parents across the state just don’t know enough about 21st-century skills. The unnerving part is that the proponents don’t seem to know much more.”

For its part, the op-ed piece cites a report by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Task Force on 21st Century Skills. That report spells out in some detail how to integrate these skills into the K-12 curriculum. The op-ed piece ends: “This is hard work, and must be done in a careful, thoughtful way, but it must be done.”

Like so much in life and education, common sense tells us that an appropriate balance must be found between the poorly-named “hard” and “soft” skills. For my part, as an employer, I prefer to help employees with strong “process” skills (of the 21st-century variety, which in my opinion include reading, writing, and math) acquire “content” than I do the converse.

To that end–both employment narrowly and citizenship more broadly–I continue to encourage the Wayland Public Schools and its administration to keep raising the bar regarding the thoughtful (and where possible, evidence-based) integration of “process” and “content.” I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others on this topic.

Thoughts on an evolution of the Wayland Public Schools

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

A thread on the private Town Crier/Wicked Local discussion board includes considerable back-and-forth on data showing US students trailing their international counterparts on certain standardized tests. One contributor to that thread makes the wholly unsupported claim that Wayland, being part of the US, is therefore in a similar trailing position. That’s entirely possible, but I know of no data indicating such a gap.

Let’s imagine, thought, that a Wayland Public Schools (WPS) education isn’t the best in the world, the country, or even Massachusetts. Because that’s what we should imagine as the motivation for continuous improvement. Twice on the TC/WL thread, I asked the critic for something more than criticism: what might the WPS look like to truly compete? Twice getting no answer, it occurred to me to take a stab at the question myself.

I included “evolution” rather than “revolution” in the title of this thread because the data (test scores, athletic results, art performance, college acceptances, …) reveal a system that is at least strong, and that doesn’t need to be “blown up” and started anew.

I would start with what we have–excellent teachers, solid curriculum, adequate facilities, all aimed at our delivering on our mission statement–and then evolve consistent with the best thinking of our superintendent, our administrators, our teachers, and experts beyond our borders:

  • More professional development: As our Superintendent says, this is our research and development. Teachers get better when they learn, and their learning in the classroom will be slow without training in the classroom and outside the current school day.
  • Longer school day: I would start with Kindergarten, moving from a 2/3 to a full day. Then, I would consider extending the full day by an hour or two. This is more an issue at the elementary level, as our co-curricular program (more on that below) already provides a longer day.
  • Technology infusion: Educational productivity in terms of student:teacher ratio hasn’t really changed in a century–we still have one educator in a class of 25 or so children. One promise of technology is a shake-up of this ratio. Instructional software and distance learning don’t have to come at the expense of the teaching staff, whose count would reduce through attrition. In fact, such a shift would benefit the teacher, freeing him or her up to spend more time in smaller groups providing truly differentiated instruction.
  • Differentiated instruction (1): As commonly used, differentiated instruction connotes different or extra work for struggling students. A broader use of the term, though, means having each student at their “zone of proximal development” (where work is challenging, not frustrating or boring). This applies to all students across the spectrum of ability, not just those who struggle.
  • Differentiated instruction (2): While this isn’t the traditional use of the phrase “differentiated instruction, I’d like to explore having one teacher for reading/social studies and a second for math/science at the elementary level. This would allow for teachers with more focused education and experience coming in and professional development going forward.
  • Curriculum enhancement: In recent years, we’ve made great strides in the key foundational skills of early reading and math. All curriculum is reviewed and improved on a revolving schedule. Two areas that are obvious candidates for expansion/overhaul are foreign language and health/wellness. Both should be considered district-wide, including a look at foreign language at the elementary level (sometimes called FLES). Regarding health/wellness, the research is clear on the positive academic effect of nutrition, fitness, proper sleep (perhaps enhanced through later start times for older students), and avoiding destructive habits.
  • Co-curricular program: Currently, because of our athletics fee structure, we spend on the order of $50 on academics for every $1 we pay for our athletic program. I’d like to see that ratio drop to $30:$1 (by eliminating the fees) or even $25:$1 or so (by publicly-funding crew and hockey). Athletics should be on par with our rich arts program, and they aren’t. Athletics are an important part of an education, not only for reasons of fitness, but for their contribution to the “competitive skills” listed at the end of this entry.
  • Adequate facilities: As great as it would be to house a world class education in world class facilities, that has not been–and likely will not be–our approach. With ongoing significant (roofs, windows) and minor (flooring) work, our elementary schools are adequate. Our Middle School, recently renovated, is a bit better than adequate. The deficiencies of our High School physical plant are well-documented; through the outstanding work of the High School Building Committee, we hope that these deficiencies will shortly be the subject of some redress. Across our buildings, we need to be “thinking green” by implementing energy efficient features.

My list above builds on our current offering, it does not replace it. Commensurately, my list above requires funding on top of what we currently spend. I fully appreciate the precarious position of our current finances and the considerable challenges we face in increasing the amount. Nonetheless, I think it important to paint a picture of what a reasonable–not excessive–public education might look like.

I offer all of the above in the context of the current structure of public education. I do so not because this structure is perfect, but rather, because it is what we have. I’m all for working to improve public education by changing its structure, but doing so requires effort far beyond our control here within the borders of Wayland.

Earlier, I referenced our mission statement. My shorthand for our goal: helping young people become global citizens. A recent survey of 400 national companies found the following qualities to be most important to competitive success on the global stage:

  1. Professionalism and work ethic
  2. Written/spoken communication
  3. Teamwork
  4. Critical thinking/creativity/problem solving

All are consistent with our mission statement, and all should be at the forefront of our thinking as we continue to evolve the Wayland Public Schools.

There are probably some areas that I’ve inadvertently neglected. I look forward to reading people’s comments on my thoughts as well as the addition of their own.

(Appropriately) valuing co-curricular activities

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

Co-curricular programs include athletics, arts, and activities (clubs). Appropriately valuing these programs takes on particular importance during tight financial times.

It’s a fair question to ask what percentage of our programmatic budget (excluding fixed costs such as custodial services, maintenance, transportation, and utilities) should be allocated to curricular (academic) versus co-curricular programs. 75%? 80%? 90%?

If we look at the FY09 school budget, we see that we spend 88% of our funds on program. Those program costs are then broken down as follows.

  • Academics: 91.1%
  • Art: 1.8%
  • Music: 2.7%
  • Theater arts: 0.7%
  • Athletics: 3.0%
  • Activities: 0.7%

In my opinion, these percentages reflect a reasonable prioritization.

Some sports (golf, skiing) and activities (ultimate frisbee) seem to be particular targets for charges of “over-spending.” We should be careful not to imagine these endeavors as “resort activities,” but legitimate competition that bring all of the benefits of the more “traditional” sports: fitness, teamwork, character, and so on. Moreover, they provide (as does crew, for instance) a markedly different type of competition for athletes who might not have the “tools” for the traditional sports.

In a comparison of 25 FY07 teams, cost per student ranged from a high of ~$1,050 (swimming) to a low of ~$250 (track). Golf ranks 4th at ~$800 (behind boys and girls volleyball) and skiing ranks 8th at ~$625 (behind boys and girls basketball, and comparable to baseball). Note that skiing’s rank will drop considerably now that lift passes will be paid for by a separate fee to match the practice of peer districts. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with lift passes being part of the athletic budget–they are a necessary part of the sport, one that has athletes paying for their own equipment unlike most other sports.

I value co-curricular programs for the breadth that they add to a public education, and see devoting roughly a tenth of the budget to their pursuit as being appropriate.