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.

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.