Experts: Businesses Could Enable Ambitious STEM Plans

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Education stakeholders say the U.S. business community is in a better position than school systems to address the problems facing science, technology, engineering, and math education, although some experts assert companies have played it too safe.

“Business leaders are equipped to provide the kind of straight-talking leadership and relevant expertise that transformative STEM reform requires,” according to a recently released report, The Case for Being Bold: A New Agenda for Business in Improving STEM Education.

However, aid typically offered by businesses — partnering with institutions to promote best practices, providing resources, and getting involved as corporate sponsors — fails to deliver “breakthrough improvement,” explained the paper’s authors during a recent forum hosted by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“The business community has too often felt that being a good citizen, and being the good stakeholder, and being a good partner meant being really nice,” said coauthor Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It meant offering additional dollars, offering scholarships, allowing accountants and astrophysicists to go be reading buddies two days a month, and then just hoping districts are going to be smart about how they leverage and utilize these resources."

“What we’ve wound up with,” he added, “is a watery consensus where nobody outside the system is really demanding that we make the hard kinds of trade-offs or do the uncomfortable rethinking. And folks inside the system are so hemmed in by statutes and regulations and culture and temperament that they’re disinclined to make those changes.”

Indeed, solutions engineered to fit comfortably within today’s educational system will be hard-pressed to fundamentally transform STEM education, the authors said, recognizing that developing a set of remedies that encourages excellence in STEM achievement will not be easy.

Raising expectations

According to the latest international assessment results, U.S. students ranked 17th in science and 25th in math. The highest achievers also lag behind their international peers, with just 6 percent of U.S. students scoring at the advanced level in math, experts noted.

To date, calls to reform STEM education, stakeholders argue, have not paid enough attention to rigor. Many solutions also advocate a STEM-for-all-students approach, but such measures have fallen short, they added.

If universal access to advanced STEM subjects is the goal, however, educators ought to consider how this might weaken efforts to achieve higher standards, the paper explained.

“If we raise the level of expectation across the board, we must accept the fact that some students will not make the cut,” the authors wrote. “Successful business leaders are familiar with such decisions in hiring and evaluating employees and optimizing the division of labor, not everybody can do every job, nor would you necessarily want the same level of skill across all employees.”

In translating that analogy to STEM education, experts said rather than make the case that all students excel in Algebra II, for instance, educators should recognize that an Algebra II course may not be suitable or necessary for all students.

Moreover, the authors suggested educators consider how alternatives — statistics or economics, for example — are just as rigorous and may be a better match to extend the math education for some students and prepare them for technical careers.

The education sector might also take a cue from the private sector when considering ways to diversify the teaching profession, the report said.

Indeed, businesses have spent decades figuring out how to leverage the talents of part time staff, freelancers, and remote workers, and colleges have specialized adjunct faculty who provide instruction in particular areas.

Schools, on the other hand, have barely begun to consider alternatives to the traditional classroom teacher, although the growth in K-12 online instructors in recent years suggests the landscape is changing.

Experts suggested businesses may play a role in supporting models that give part-timers, who have other obligations or related jobs, a chance to teach K-12 students.

“Because the private sector is largely free of the political and membership constraints that make public organizations overly cautious and consensus-driven, it is exceptionally well-suited to support reform ideas that expand our conceptions of ‘schools,’ ‘teachers,’ and ‘instructional delivery’ far outside their traditional contours,” the report noted.

The full report is available online -- download a copy for free.

This article originally appeared in the April 20th edition of Ed Daily.