STEM just one facet of needed ed reforms

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Your editorial on Oct. 21, “STEM education will re-launch U.S. economy,” reiterates the problem of graduating too few people willing to pursue science, technology, engineering and math careers poses to the American economy.

It also recounts the familiar, yet updated, international comparison statistics that point to the pitiful job the American public education system generally does to equip graduates with basic STEM literacy, let alone providing them with the background to become interested in and pursue related careers.

These restatements of the problems invite expanding the discussion to include proposed solutions.

There are a lot of efforts underway in New Mexico and throughout the country to remedy the problems and reverse the trends. For example, here in New Mexico, the labs invest millions of dollars annually, run training camps for teachers, invite students for internships, and encourage their scientists and engineers to volunteer, interacting with and assisting students as instructors and mentors.

Here in New Mexico and across the country, the success of some magnet schools focusing on math and science is a beacon of hope. Some schools of education are beginning to address, albeit all too slowly, the shortcomings of sending would-be teachers of math and science into the classroom steeped in pedagogical theory but inadequately proficient in the basic subject matter.

Recognizing that those with math and science skills are in high demand everywhere, some programs allow for differential pay, or experiment with performance-based incentives.

Such measures are as necessary as they are well-meaning.

Yet, to date, such efforts have been marginalized by the mainstream public school power structure with the result that worthy programs that chip away at the problems impact only a privileged few.

So far, the efforts have failed to institutionalize transformative changes required to yield significantly improved performance improvements overall. Reaching broadly, not just for STEM career-oriented improvement, is crucial because many jobs, not just those that are STEM career related, now depend on STEM skills.

A recent book, “Average is Over” by economist Tyler Cowan, argues getting satisfying jobs and well-paying jobs more and more requires computer and analytical proficiencies, which are related to STEM skills.

The STEM discussion in the popular press so far generally suffers from two additional critical shortcomings.

First, it fails to address another critical shortage throughout American industry – competent general managers.

Prerequisites are broad-based thinking, communication and interpersonal skills, which are the backbone for creating viable organizations relying on any set of particular proficiencies, STEM or not.

Second, it has overlooked the critical need in STEM careers for basic communication literacy, cultural awareness and sensitivity, and savvy about how to move ideas through an organization, prerequisites to have advancement potential, not just starting jobs.

Our entire society would also benefit greatly if the education of STEM career people encouraged more of them to recognize their role and exercise their capacities as citizens.

Many do, but there could be more.

The discussion really needs to be not just about STEM. It needs to be about reorienting mainstream public education to providing high-quality, broad-based learning that provides an opportunity for all students to be exposed to and learn to value STEM, language, arts, history, culture and trade skills.

Gains in student engagement, enthusiasm and test scores in reading, math and science from programs such as NDI-New Mexico and the New Mexico Philharmonic, which provide some students access to the arts both in-school and after-school, point to a great place to start.