STEM Magic

Back in the 50’s, Eisenhower shed light on the dangers of the “military-industrial” complex which had a huge vested interest in influencing public policy. We now have the Testing and Admissions Complex (TAC), of testing agencies and college admissions offices, that is equally problematic.

For years, the federal and state government have tried to determine educational policy and change outcomes for students, and they have had little affect on what actually happens in the classroom. In response to No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and the Education and Secondary Education Act, there were few changes in what has been taught to students and how it was taught. But the TAC, along with ancillary pressures by the NCAA and state governments, has had a much bigger impact on what is taught to students.

Ironically, it is the TAC which has really stifled education reform and action. Most schools teach students, both in content and structure, as they were taught a century ago, an era which was teaching skills to work in an industrial era. There are schools tha have developed unusual schedules, narrative grading, home grown options to AP courses, but they are teaching the same courses, math, science, English, history and world languages, in the same way they always have.

I understand why we learn about how to solve problems, think creatively, write accurately, understand complex writing. But I do not understand why we are spending so much energy on making all students engage in learning highly technical skills in math and science that do come at the expense of conceptual understanding and usefulness. All students are required to do the same technical tasks, balancing equations, factoring polynomials, measuring momentum, that they have been doing for decades if not centuries, skills that only a tiny sliver of us will every use.

There are a variety of arguments for this. Some argue that by doing anything else, we will be cutting short the aspirations of of those who might become our future doctors or scientists. Others argue that this is the perfect thing to use in admissions, for it reflects grit, seriousness of purpose and dedication over time, while also correlating highly with other measures of intelligence. Others value it for its purity and ease of measuring.

None of these is a valid justification for why it has such an out sized impact on our education and in college admissions. One retired admissions director from a “most selective” national university, bemoaned the emphasis so many highly selective colleges have on students taking calculus. “Most would have benefited much more from statistics”

But the TAC operates against this. It has determined that 5 majors for all fours years and evidence of technical mathematic and verbal skills, the same thing they have been doing for the last century, is what they expect of their students.

I’ll give one small example of how this played out. In a former school where I worked, they had an what they referred to as “Interactive Math”, which was similar, as I understand it, to Chicago Math. I sat in on some classes and was fascinated. The students were not just performing calculations, but actually talking about math in real life problem solving. Though these were just impressions, it seemed as if these kids really understood why we learned math and how to use it. They passed and excelled in state tasting for math, which was more problem solving oriented and open ended than the SAT, at a much higher rate than those in traditional math instruction. But the school ended the program because the students were not doing as well on the SAT’s as others.

Are we expecting so much math from our kids because it is important or because it is convenient? In an excerpt from my blog, I write:

Though there is actually a surplus of STEM graduates and a shortage of those skilled in the trades, we are requiring all students who graduate from high school to have advanced math and science skills while we are abandoning vocational education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that “there are significantly more science and engineering graduates in the United States than attractive positions available in the workforce.” Similarly, researchers have pointed to the disproportionate percentage of bachelor’s degree STEM holders not employed in STEM occupations.10 This STEM training, with almost a magical aura, often comes at the expense of what many consider more vital things to graduate high school with, including civics, understanding politics and history, financial literacy, job skills and the giving students the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. It is essential that our students understand the concepts of science to appreciate things like the frailty of our ecosystem, but the important scientific takeaways are clouded by an obsession of demonstrating obscure technical skills over knowledge of concepts. We should be focusing on those things needed by all persons to become productive and active citizens: strong writing and reading skills, reasoning skills, speaking skills, understanding our democracy and what it means to participate in it and conceptual science skills.

College admissions officers, starting with those at the most selective institutions, have a huge impact on what students learn in high school. But, for all their talk of innovation and forward thinking, they have been expecting the exact same thing from students for decades, if not centuries. And as the competitiveness increased to get into the most selective colleges, few used their vast power and authority over education to re-think what they want from their students. Their solution, just more of the same: higher grades, more AP’s, higher SAT’s, more elite state or national recognition, just to get in the door.

Are there exceptions? Sure. Bard allows kids to write and extensive research paper as an alternative to a transcript; UNC Chapel Hill specifically states that more is not better in regards to college level courses in high school. But, by and large, colleges expect what they do because they can and they are afraid to do differently.

Colleges, and the state and federal government, and the NCAA, and a host of “reformers” need to move away from what is convenient and familiar, i.e. requiring all students to graduate high school with advanced technical skills in math and science, to ensuring that they have the skills that are truly needed (and yes, for a good number of students, this does involve these skills) to be successful in their future education, in their civic life and in their careers.


Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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