Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dubious Need for more STEM Graduates

Educators, as well as policy makers all over the United States should come to know the names, and work of two research professors: Hal Salzman is a professor of public policy from Rutgers. Dr.Lindsay Lowell is from Georgetown University and the Director of Policy Studies for the Institute of International Migration.

For the last couple of years these two professors have been wrestling with an assumption driving US education policy. It goes something like this: US high-tech corporations are not able to find enough science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates to supply their employment needs. This forces corporations to move jobs offshore or to utilize the Guest Worker Program to bring in foreign STEM workers.

Salzman and Lowell decided to do something US policy makers did not do. They decided not to trust anecdotes as evidence. The academics began researching the supply of STEM graduates. After a couple of studies on the issue, the researches decided to use longitudinal data sets covering a 30 year period of time to determine what has really been happening with STEM. Today, this report has become public and provides support for the previous research from the pair.

I will save you from a 53 page read of "Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline" (Also the previous paper by the authors,"Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality and Workforce Demand") with some key points from all the work:

*US colleges and universities are still graduating as many STEM as they were in the 1970s.
*Supply is not the problem. US universities have graduated about three times more STEM than were employed in the science fields.
*There is a trend of the top quintile of STEM to choose other fields, possibly because pay and other employment conditions are no longer competitive.
* To reiterate with a quote from Dr. Lowell, "...there is no evidence of a long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs."

Unfortunately, this modest common sense conclusion, now backed by significant research may not make headlines, let alone policy changes; but it should. Think about it...we have based an significant part of our national education policy off erroneous assumption.

We assumed that corporations could not get enough quality STEM graduates. We assumed they went offshore in pursuit of ability. More irritating and insulting was the assumption that not only was there a STEM shortage, but that the shortage was due to poor public schools and poor teachers.

It now appears that US corporations have once again taken the nation down the wrong path. There is no STEM shortage. US corporations pursued cheap STEM workers offshore the same way a generation earlier they pursued cheap manufacturing workers offshore.

Teachers are not responsible for workers failing to be "globally competitive". Corporations are making a choice not to employee US graduates that has little to do with their education.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

STEM Study

I had the privilege to be on a conference call today previewing new research out of Rutgers. The two primary researchers are professors Hal Salzman and Lindsay Lowell. The study is a 30 year longitudinal look at science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates. The research looks at what happens to the graduates. Do they enter STEM career fields?

The conventional "wisdom" has been that the United States does not graduate enough qualified STEM people and this forces corporations to go offshore for employees. Many powerful interests then take this assumption another step forward and blame educators for not preparing children to enter college with STEM majors and careers in mind. US educators are not producing globally competitive students under this scenario.

The report is under embargoed until tomorrow. I will write a follow up blog giving details of the findings on Wednesday. Suffice it to say that once again educators have been blamed for a situation not of their making. Furthermore, we have education policy being made on anecdotal evidence that does not stand up to deep dive analysis.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mark Your Calendar

It's not too early to mark your calendars for State Representative John Kowalko's fundraiser. Kowalko will have a fundraiser ($25 suggested contribution)on Friday, November 13th, 6:00PM at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark (Wila Road).

John Kowalko is a special friend to educators. Last year, Representative John Kowalko was the first elected representative to begin the discussion of substantial, and sustainable revenue. He believes that a strong public sector, of which public education is at the heart, is essential to a 21st Century economy. This conviction led him to take a firm and out front stand with educators and other state employees against the salary cut.

John Kowalko is passionate on issues such as education, the economy and the environment, but he never sacrifices thoughtfulness in the heat of debate. We look forward to having such a quality ally at our side in the next legislative session.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Update on STD and Health Insurance

This post is an update on the Short Term Disability situation as it pertains to health insurance.

At today's State Employee Benefit Committee meeting we received important clarification about health benefits and short term disability. We discussed in the last post the potential for people waiting through the extended elimination period (60 days)for their short term disability might also lose their health insurance (state share). An eligibility rule for the state health fund says that employees who are on an unpaid leave for a month will not receive the state share of the health benefit.

The scenario is not quite as bad as we feared. If an employee has short term disability pending, then they will not suffer the automatic cancelation of state share stated in rule 5.11. Rule 5.13b allows health coverage (state share) to continue while the status is pending. However, if the short term disability is denied, then the employee would owe the cost of that coverage back to the state.

Thank heaven for small miracles.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Two of Many Considerations

Several of the staff here at DSEA are sifting through Race To The Top guidelines and the related Delaware Department of Education Strategic Plan. We are trying to define DSEA positions so that initiatives that follow will be of benefit, not burden to students and educators.

In the middle of this task it occurred to me that the foundation for much of what is labeled reform, is very unstable indeed. In this post, I will only touch on two shaky pillars; one that US education is an unmitigated failure and two that the root cause of the failure is bad teachers, somehow functioning in a vacuum from society at large.

First, the very idea that American education is failing is subjective. Upon what is success or failure measured, a standardized test score? It is ironic that many of today's decision makers were probably never tested beyond something like the Iowa Basic in their school days. However, today, the standardized test is king. I should say, remains king, even after national politicians spent last campaign season agreeing with educators that the tests are of dubious value.

Also, efforts to substantiate the idea of failed US schools have included numerous articles comparing American math and science scores to other nations. Only math and science are examined because that's now the only part of education that matters (according to the non-educators who play the tune to which we all dance). In any case, these comparisons are not so much studies looking at similar students with similar variables as they are simplistic listing of scores of same aged students. In short, when the rest of the world has the same inclusiveness in education as the US, perhaps something approaching an "apples to apples" comparison might take place. Until that time, it is just more emotionalism to drive an agenda.

If one buys the story that US education is terrible, then the next item for one to purchase is that teachers are responsible for the failure. No other profession accepts the sole responsibility for client outcome, but educators are expected to do so. For example, try not paying your gym trainer if you fail to lose weight.

Reasonable arguments expounding upon the variables outside of the control of educators that might impact student performance could fill enough pages for a doctoral dissertation. For the sake of a simple blog, and even simpler blogger, let us look at one, the current socio-economic environment of children.

The socio-economic environment of children is very stressed in our current era. There is little acknowledgment of the economic environment in which children are educated.

The coming year of 2010 will find 26.6% of all American children living in poverty, according the Economic Policy Institute.

Food security is a US Department of Agriculture assessment which means that everyone in a household has access to enough food for an active and healthy life. The last year for which USDA food security figures are available is 2007, before the economic downturn. We know that in 2007 13 million households were food insecure. According to the USDA in 2007 16% of all the US households with children experienced food insecurity.

Furthermore, the health care crisis of which so much has been publicized also impacts children. According to Kids Count in Delaware, using a three year average, more than 10% of our children are without health insurance.

Put all of this together and many children face formidable odds against learning regardless of the intention, skill, training, or technique of the teacher. Kids who are hungry, sick, with parents working multiple jobs, with dubious housing, and with the family stress of poverty, are going to have problems in school.

None of this commentary is to say that educators are not willing to change, or that we don't welcome new ideas and the funding to experiment. However, we need a realistic definition of success and failure and we need to be conscious that the world of our children has changed, and not for the better.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Charter Regulation Needed

DSEA is likely to be back this year with legislation on regulation of charter schools. For 13 years charters have had an unregulated market in Delaware. In spite of receiving public money, the schools are immune from public scrutiny or governance.

If DSEA charter legislation returns this year, look for it to contain the following goals:

1. Only the Delaware Department of Education and the State Board of Education will have the authority to grant new charters.
This should perhaps be named the Red Clay clause. Under the previous board and superintendent, Red Clay sponsored charters. Moreover, Red Clay promoted and advocated for charters. Sometimes this was at the expense of Red Clay schools. For example, Charter School of Wilmington shares building space with Red Clay's own Cab Caloway. While Cab lacks the space to guarantee that their own middle school students will matriculate into the high school, Charter elbows for room while paying a whole one dollar of rent per year to the district.

2. A more thoughtful process for charter school authorization.
The state DOE and Board of Education would have to take an affirmative vote every year to allow charter applications for that year. The state would have to balance the best interests of the charter against the best interests of the community and the community's public schools. DOE would be charged with researching and writing an impact statement that looks at the proposed charter's effect on enrollment and finance of area public schools, demographics of children in the county, extent of redundancy of programs offered by the charter, and the affected districts' superintendents would have to file an opinion letter giving their impressions.

3. Added transparency of charter school information.
The DOE would need to post information about charters on their web site including, applications for new charters and the DOE decisions about those applications, all IRS 990 forms, and all charter school audits.

4. Regulated conduit bond funding for charter schools.
Community public schools have to bring proposals for needed construction and renovation money before the public in the referendum. Charter schools gain capital financing through issuing bonds in a process called "conduit bond funding". Once again, this has been unregulated. Capital financing should only come through the state, not some other public entity. Conduit bond financing should only be available for established charters after their first renewal, provided they are not on probation. There should be a Certificate of Need process in which again the opinion of superintendents in impacted districts will be solicited. The state Office of Management and Budget would do a financial review of the charter to determine fiscal stability.

Not one of these four goals is extreme. Not one of these goals if made into law will endanger established, effective charters.

The public is spending tax dollars on charter schools; dollars that would be going to community public schools. Thus, the public has the right to regulate and monitor charter schools.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Education and the Recession

We need to take a comprehensive look at the way we "do business" in this country. More accurately, we need to look at the way our economic system functions and the way it periodically malfunctions.

In particular I'm thinking of economic recessions. These "downturns" are portrayed as short-term and having no lasting effect on society. However, a new study by John Irons of the Economic Policy Institute says we better think again. "Economic Scarring: The Long-Term Impacts of the Recession" discusses rising unemployment, falling incomes, lack of health care, and general reduced economic activity, not from the perspective of next quarter's Dow Jones numbers, but from the next generation's prospects for success.

In looking long-term, much of the paper focuses on education and what recession does to that noble enterprise. First, early childhood education will suffer. Most pre-K activity is at the private expense of parents who will be less able to afford quality early childhood education. Moreover, any plans for publicly funded early childhood have certainly been placed on hold as states continue to stagger from falling revenues.

Second, childhood nutrition is negatively impacted by recession, and impedes cognitive abilities. The report cites research (Nord, et al 2008 "Household Food Security in the United States, 2007")that identified 13 million US households with 12.7 million children that experienced food insecurity. Food insecurity is the difficulty in providing enough food for all family members.

The list of recession related stresses on education continues with lack of access to health services such as pre-natal and early childhood care, dental and optometric care. In 2008 there were 46.3 million uninsured Americans and 7 million of those citizens were children (US Census 2009).

Recession obstacles to learning include reduced after-school and summertime activities and the significant factor of housing dislocations and homelessness.
Finally, families will delay or abandon hopes of sending children to college.

The whole picture of the recession style education is one of lasting effects. Failures in education now can lead to career challenges and reduced wages later. Finally, because social mobility issues are generational, we could be experiencing outcomes of the recession 50 years from now.