Common Core – For Our Kids

Note: This column ran in the August 16, 2013 edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

What do economic development, better jobs, and our kids’ future all have in common? Good schools.

In a few days schools will be back in session. But are those schools good enough? The education our kids get will determine how well they can compete in today’s global economy. It will also determine whether businesses will be able to find the skilled employees they need right here at home – without moving and leaving pockets of unemployment behind. Good schools mean better jobs.

Unfortunately, far from being the best in the word, a recent study showed that America’s students rank only 25th in math and 17th in science among OECD countries. Our kids represent the future of our country, and if their skills are not up to par, not only will they suffer, but our nation will suffer.

The “Common Core state standards” initiative is designed to bring our schools – all our schools – up to par. It sets minimum standards for what every school must teach. Although the Common Core is a nationwide effort, it is not a federal initiative. But political leaders in Washington, in Tallahassee, and locally must step up to the plate, support this concept, and provide the funding to assure our kids are not cheated out of the future they deserve.

In today’s highly charged political environment, the Common Core standards have already come under attack. For example, there are organized groups who for religious reasons oppose teaching children about science, the scientific method, and critical thinking. If they were to win the political argument about what should be taught in our schools, our children could be forever disadvantaged.

Other opponents include those who oppose any outside influence or standards for local schools. In fact some even think the Common Core is a United Nations plot! However, the patchwork approach they favor can only lead to greater inequality, as students in some schools and some states get a head start, while others undermine student opportunities by not teaching the skills needed today.

We live in a mobile society, and young people must be able to compete for jobs in other states. If Florida students fall behind those in other states, they may miss out on opportunities elsewhere.

We must hold our elected officials feet to the fire to support Common Core standards and provide adequate funding for schools, for teacher training, and for our children.

We cannot afford to allow Florida to fester with growing pockets of poverty and unskilled, unemployed youth. It is our job to see that our young people are taught the skills they need. That is the least our children deserve.

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Arc Special Update: Restructuring Federal STEM Funding

Under President Obama’s FY2014 funding request, federal STEM funding could be substantially restructured and streamlined, part of a broader goal to create a “cohesive national STEM education strategy” at every level – K-12, undergraduate, graduate and informal education. The $3.1 billion total request for STEM education is 6.7 percent increase from the FY2012 funded level.

Currently falling under several science-focused agencies, the proposal consolidates STEM funding under three agencies: K-12 programs under the Department of Education ($814 million – a 53.9 percent increase from FY2012’s $529 million); undergraduate and graduate programs under the National Science Foundation ($1,243 million – a 7.7 percent increase from FY2012’s $1,154 million) and community outreach/informal education under the Smithsonian Institution ($25 million; this is the first year the Smithsonian Institution has had STEM education funding).

The proposal also eliminates or reorganizes more than half of current programs, bringing the total number of federal STEM programs to 112 from 226 and significantly reducing funding for STEM programs under several agencies, including NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, and Transportation.

Significant areas of investment include:

STEM-Focused K-12 Education

  • $150 million to create STEM Innovation Networks, a competitive grant program linking school districts with STEM resources  to bolster student engagement and support teacher professional development
  • $300 million for High School Redesign Grants supporting STEM partnerships between high schools and colleges and employers
  • $1.1 billion to better align high school curriculum with STEM workforce needs and postsecondary opportunities
  • $1 billion for Race to the Top grants
  • $215 million for the Investing in Innovation (i3) program designed to scale-up evidence-based STEM education resources. This funding will also support ARPA-ED, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED); this agency, modeled after similar programs in the Departments of Energy and Defense, was initially proposed in the President’s FY 2012 request and is aimed at developing educational technology and related resources

Teacher Training and Recruitment

  • $80 million to train 100,000 STEM teachers
  • $35 million for a pilot STEM Master Teacher Corps program
  • $149.7 million for the Effective Teaching and Learning STEM program, aimed at implementing strategies to promote high-quality STEM instruction

Undergraduate and Graduate STEM Education

  • $495.3 million for undergraduate programs, including $123.1 million for the new CAUSE (Catalyzing Advances in Undergraduate STEM Education) grant program to increase retention of undergraduate STEM students and improve undergraduate STEM teaching
  • $453.2 million for graduate and professional programs, a substantial 21 percent increase over the $373.6 million FY 2012 enacted level aimed at better preparing US engineers and scientists. The request includes $325 million for the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship program

While all the requested expenditures may not make it through the budget process, the Administration’s budget does make clear the growing emphasis on STEM education and the focus at the federal level on both streamlining and increasing funding for STEM programs. If your company is looking for a guide in navigating the government funding landscape, don’t hesitate to contact me (rita [at] arccd.com) for more information.

Next Generation Science Standards Released

Turning somewhat away from politics, I wanted to share some thoughts on some recent education news. The final Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released on Tuesday, April 9th and they call for some dramatic changes to the way science is taught in the United States.

Rita celebrated girls learning science by making shark hats for a fundraiser with Girls Inc.

The NGSS guidelines are rigorous:  they are intended to combat widespread scientific ignorance, provide a set of internationally benchmarked standards for K-12 science education and stipulates what science and engineering concepts should be mastered for college and career readiness.  In many states, science education only begins in high school, missing the opportunity to ignite interest and build knowledge in science at earlier ages.

The new standards were built from the Framework for K-12 Science Education, published by the National Academies National Research Council in 2011.  Twenty-six states, industry partners and a 41-member writing team worked for two years on the guidelines.

While states are not required to adopt the standards, the 26 states involved in their development have committed to seriously consider adoption. This includes Arizona, Arkansas, California, Iowa, Kansas and New York, as well as Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

The final version of the standards have contracted the content a bit, and educators at last week’s National Science Teacher Association annual conference in San Antonio expressed excitement that the guidelines will have them covering fewer subject but digging more deeply into the ones they do cover.

Like all major educational reform efforts, the Next Generation Science Standards, like the other Common Core standards projects in language arts and mathematics, are as much about politics as they are about policy. While there will be backlash against a national set of standards in science, from a science curriculum developer’s point of view, they could prove to be an invaluable tool in strengthening science education across the country.

For too long, science curriculum has been vulnerable to the whims of non-educator political groups and movements, as exemplified by efforts made on state levels to include religious theory alongside scientific theory in the creationism vs. evolution debate. National standards will put much of this to rest. Less dramatically, but still importantly, having a common set of standards will allow curriculum companies to spend their time investing in how science is taught as opposed to what is taught – strengthening pedagogical approaches and tools. This is particularly important for elementary science because so many elementary teachers are undereducated in science and lack confidence in teaching it.

It will be interesting to watch how these standards take their place in the American educational landscape. With any luck, they will help to move the US forward in its quest to become a STEM-fluent society.

“Raising the Bar: Reviewing STEM Education in America”

On April 10, I attended a Hearing of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), where they reviewed the need to evaluate the federal government’s STEM investment to ensure it is helping students complete for jobs in these high-demand STEM fields.

By 2018 the United States will have more than 1.2 million job openings in science, technology, engineering, and math occupations. Yet there is growing concern employers will be unable to fill these high paying jobs because too few students graduate high school prepared to pursue STEM-related opportunities.

Many believe the United States will be at a competitive disadvantage if today’s students to not have skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to fill the 9.2 million STEM jobs expected in the next ten years.

“There is a widespread concern that our nation’s preeminence in science and innovation is eroding,” said Dr. Ioannis Miaoulis, President and Director of the Museum of Science, Boston. “Only 5 percent of U.S. college graduates major in engineering, compared with 12 percent of European students and 20 percent of those in Asia.”

The hearing provided committee members a chance to examine federal STEM programs and discuss ways to help improve ways for students to acquire these critical STEM skills.

You can find an archived webcast of the hearing here, or visit www.edworkforce.house.gov/hearings to read witness testimony or opening statements.

The Gateway to Opportunity

Every morning when I drop my 13 year-old son at school, I am reminded of the value of a good public education. It is his future. Protecting our public education system is one of the things that drove me into Florida politics years ago. Many of us are appalled at the policies Governor Scott and Republicans in Tallahassee are pursuing — cuts in funding, teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, and more.

These are the same kind of policies Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would pursue across the nation. According to them, education is the responsibility of each individual family, and each family should get whatever education they can afford for their kids. Once again, “you’re on your own.” If your family can’t afford much, that’s too bad. Romney and his supporters would abandon those millions of young Americans and their futures.

President Obama understands this is wrong and that a quality public education must be available to all students – not just the few who can afford it. He has said:

“You can choose a future where more Americans have the chance to gain the skills they need to compete, no matter how old they are or how much money they have. Education was the gateway to opportunity for me. It was the gateway for Michelle. It was the gateway for most of you. And now more than ever, it is the gateway to a middle-class life.

“And now you have a choice — we can gut education, or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school. No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money. No company should have to look for workers overseas because they couldn’t find any with the right skills here at home. That’s not our future. That is not our future.”

Education is the foundation for a stronger economy and better jobs for Americans, and it is the gateway to opportunity for all. America can not afford to go back on education. That is why I believe we must re-elect the President and elect Democrats to Congress and our Florida Legislature if we hope to keep our economy and our middle class strong. (Note: This post also appeared last week on SarasotaPatch.com.)

What Romney is Saying (and *Not* Saying) About Education

As the presidential election gathers steam, the differences in the education philosophies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney continue to come into focus. However, education issues – beyond college debt – have yet to be a strong factor in the election, particularly in coverage by the mainstream media, so I wanted to take a minute to highlight some articles you may have missed after Romney published a white paper in late May, “A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education”. His K-12 priorities include increasing school choice, replacing federal No Child Left Behind interventions with public “report cards” for schools at the state level, and emphasizing teacher quality.

Education Week has a great round-up of reactions to the white paper, while Dana Goldstein at The Nation took a closer look at what Romney failed to touch on in the white paper. Specifically, Goldstein questions Romney’s support for the Common Core curriculum standards, whether he would ensure that Title I and IDEA funds remain earmarked for poor and disabled children, how he feels about current GOP efforts to de-link state and local budget cuts from access to federal monies, and where he stands on early learning programs. As the campaign moves along, it will certainly be interesting to see if Romney addresses these crucial issues, most likely providing further contrast between his education agenda and that of President Obama.

Size Matters

Late last month, when Mitt Romney told teachers in Philadelphia that small class sizes don’t help students, I had dinner with a friend, a teacher who has spent 20 years in the classroom. Her most recent class consisted of 29 kindergarteners, with no aide or outside help. All I could think was how much I would like to see Romney trade places with her – while I have no doubt she could run a great campaign, I would be shocked if he lasted long with 29 five-year-olds!

Not surprisingly, Romney’s position drew immediate criticism from teachers in Philadelphia and beyond. But his position is not just campaign rhetoric – it was reflected time and again in his actions as Massachusetts governor. By his second year in office Massachusetts schools saw the nation’s second largest per-pupil cuts. Romney also attempted to cut funding for early literacy and kindergarten programs, vetoed a bill to create universal pre-kindergarten in Massachusetts, and even questioned the value of early education. I know because I was living in Massachusetts at the time and helped fight against his damaging education policies.

While student success certainly hinges upon many factors, students, parents, teachers and administrators widely agree about the value of smaller classes. Romney’s argument and record otherwise ignores the real challenges facing students and schools today in favor of quick-fix cost-saving measures that are about the bottom line, not about an investment in our students’ – and our country’s – future.

What do you think about Romney’s position that class size doesn’t matter? (Note – a different version of this post first appeared last week on Sarasota Patch.)