Weeds Have STEMs, Too

Ohio's education system has reached a crossroads--at which it can either transition to a dramatically different and more productive model (as outlined in the recent McKinsey/ACHIEVE report here), or it can continue to tinker with incremental adjustments that render the system more complex and costly without producing substantial improvements in student learning.

Incrementalists, such as the well-entrenched adult interest groups backing the proposed school-funding amendment to Ohio's constitution, would have one believe that more money will cure the state's education ills. This despite the reality that Ohio is growing ever poorer, as evidenced by sobering new budget figures (see here). Serious reformers, on the other hand, acknowledge that Ohio needs a dramatically more effective education system than it has; that today's school results are dismal; that it's results that matter at day's end, not inputs; and that boosting them calls for a new education model. Such a model will be more efficient, with higher standards, enhanced transparency, universal results-based accountability, wider schooling options, and greater flexibility for educators to meet the varied needs of children.

Sadly, recent news from Columbus (and Dayton--see here and below) doesn't bode well for the serious reform crowd. Consider the legislation being drafted at the Statehouse to create a new set of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) schools. This effort comes on the heels of December's failure to reach consensus on another STEM bill (HB 695), and a $20 million earmark for STEM in the current budget. It also faces some stern opposition from many Democrats and their traditional allies within the educational establishment.

We were no fans of last year's STEM bill (see here). Its reliance on redundant and cumbersome new top-down systems to create and manage STEM schools reflected little of the innovation implicit in such a program. What's more, it completely overlooked the possibilities inherent in Ohio's extant school chartering framework, whereby groups with track records of success could seek to open high-quality STEM (or other innovative) schools under the watchful eyes of existing charter school sponsors.

The newest iteration of STEM legislation (at least as described to date) would be, if anything, even worse. As we see it, HB 155 would sacrifice innovativeness and effectiveness on the altar of political expediency. At best it would bring a tiny bit more incremental change to Ohio's education system. Consider two of its key provisions:

  • a separate STEM system of schools, unrelated to charter schools, yet funded in the same manner as current charter schools (whereby per-pupil funding is diverted from students' home districts); and

  • governance of STEM schools by district school boards or county Educational Service Centers (ESC).

The first provision maintains the previous bill's yet-another-separate-school-system approach. That's both unnecessary and ill-conceived--since it mirrors Ohio's charter program and would be funded in a manner that's both stingy and inefficient. If Ohio's chartering experience has taught us anything, it's that quality programs, especially high school programs, aren't add-ons built on the cheap. (Will Ohio's STEM schools also be expected to pay for facilities out of their meager per-pupil funding while districts continue to construct new schools for their thinning student populations? That's what charter schools must do.)

The second provision represents capitulation to teacher unions and other traditional education groups--all of which hate charters schools and any other reform programs (such as alternative licensure for teachers, the EdChoice voucher program, and the special needs voucher) that threaten their monopoly control. Ceding oversight of STEM schools to school boards and ESCs--few of which have distinguished themselves as flexible innovators or experimenters--would sorely diminish, if not scuttle, any chances of a STEM program's success.

Yet these provisions, stifling enough on their own, are part of a broader misreading of STEM possibilities. We're speaking of the view that STEM should become a system of separate-and-distinct schools, when in truth it should represent a standard and concept that many organizations and networks should aspire to and seek to enter. What lawmakers should be doing with their STEM dollars is setting a STEM standard, almost a STEM "brand," associated with the effective delivery of 21st Century content and skills in math, science, etc. This should be attainable by any school (district, charter or private)--or college, non-profit organization, etc.--that believes in it and can make it work. It would, of course, need to include quality curricula, rigorous coursework, amazing teachers, astute uses of instructional technology, lofty performance expectations, and a host of partner organizations to enrich the program of study and create opportunities for young people to pursue STEM-related careers.

Any such STEM standard should be coupled with greater flexibility for schools and other providers to meet it. Yes, the draft legislation would grant the Ohio Board of Education the right to waive teaching requirements for STEM-subject teachers and also exempt STEM schools from state minimum school year and schedule requirements. But that's just the tip of the flexibility iceberg. (Consider, for example, absurd salary rigidities and dysfunctional seniority systems.)

Part of the $20 million for STEM programs should support creating a world-class STEM standard in Ohio and assisting interested schools in attaining it. The balance, along with considerable sums garnered from federal and philanthropic coffers, could fund a broader STEM consortium made up of schools meeting the STEM standard, universities seeking to partner with them, and businesses and research institutes that can offer teachers and students rich opportunities for hands-on learning in STEM fields. Schools failing to maintain the standard would have the STEM brand revoked, as well as the networks and resources that go with it. Pursuing this route would certainly encourage all schools--not just a select few--to compete for and retain STEM status.

As for content, a healthy STEM needs leaves and blossoms, too--rigorous liberal-arts courses that can increase students' chances for success in STEM subjects, cause creative juices to flow and produce flexible, adaptable, broadly-educated people for tomorrow's society, not just high-techies. Indeed, follow this logic and one quickly finds that the STEM movement, while championed as the savior of Ohio and the nation's talent needs, is really about standards for education as whole. It's no surprise that raising them is one of the key recommendations of the aforementioned McKinsey/ACHIEVE report.

If Ohio policymakers are serious about transforming the state's education system into a world-class model, reinvigorating Ohio's economy, and creating a new generation of highly skilled workers, they should make STEM the standard--not simply another system in which to house another round of incrementalism.

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