Over the last six decades, the American school system has been under fire and perceived as not preparing students well enough. It began with Sputnik and the race to the moon in the late 1950s and continues today as the Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s answer to school reform through financial incentives. Throughout the history of the American public school system, the need for change or reform is prefaced with a crisis.
It seems the cry for reform is a familiar one, and the answer to the crisis is similar. Increase the rigor of coursework, change the standards, and add more assessments to monitor student progress. If the international assessment scores are the way we are measuring the effectiveness of our education system, then results indicate the aforementioned reform efforts have done little, if anything to improve student achievement. While much attention has been given to the implementation of academic standards and high stakes testing over the last two decades, little attention has been given to quality instruction outside of building-level evaluation systems. The newly adopted CCSS do address pedagogical shifts and recommend instructional strategies, but just directing teachers to change their practice does not provide them with the tools and supports necessary to change their instructional habits.
So, can the STEM reform movement be the answer? The STEM education philosophy is rooted in the tenets of cognitive science and constructivist learning theory (Sanders, 2009) and is characterized by instructional strategies that encourage inquiry, discovery, integrated lessons, hands-on and collaborative learning, all applied in the context of real-world problems (National Research Council, 2011). This is a starkly different approach to the traditional teacher-centered model of teaching and learning, where teachers are transmitters of knowledge and students are passive receptors (Agarwal & Gautam, 2011). If student achievement is to improve, instructional practices must align with what research reveals about how the brain learns. However, effective school-wide practices do not come about overnight or serendipitously, nor can it be imposed upon teachers. Changing instructional practices is an intentional process and must develop out of voluntary, internal commitment that is achieved through self-reflection.
The STEM reform movement has the potential to meet the challenges of preparing students for college and careers in the 21st century, but also has the potential of not having any impact on student achievement generally, if little or no attention is given to the instructional practices of all teachers. To make this critical shift in practice, teachers need ongoing, job-embedded professional development centered on instruction. If STEM reform is going to be the answer to improving student achievement and preparing students for college and careers in the 21st century, quality, research-based instruction must be a core element of the initiative.
National Research Council. (2011). In Committee on Highly Successful Science Programs for K-12 Education. Board on Science Education and Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences (Ed.), Successful K-12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Ravitch, D. (2013, December 3). My View of the PISA Scores [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://dianeravitch.net/2013/12/03/my-view-of-the-pisa-scores/
Sanders, M. (2009). STEM, STEM education, STEMmania. Retrieved from http://esdstem.pbworks.com/f/TTT+STEM+Article_1.pdf