Finding room in crowded day for STEM instruction

Finding room in crowded day for STEM instruction

(Calif.) Increasing math education for the state’s youngest learners can ensure they start kindergarten proficient in mathematics and close achievement gaps later on, experts told a panel of lawmakers Wednesday.

The focus of the California Assembly Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education committee’s hearing was to discuss how the state could better support schools and get more students engaged in STEM education,

While everyone in attendance appeared to be in agreement that boosting early math literacy in particular would benefit students, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, noted that many teachers simply don’t have enough time in the day to put into place additional practices the state may want to mandate.

“We want this curriculum—you know it’s good, we know it’s good, the kids know it’s good, you see a positive response and engagement—but the truth is you have to go into those classrooms and you have to see what is expected with the tools that are available,” Quirk-Silva said. “I would ask everyone here to do the math on how many minutes are mandated for other subjects. There’s absolutely no way that teachers can do every single thing that is required even now by the state for curriculum, and add another huge time investment as we’ve talked about.”

One panelist, Vince Stuart, executive director of the California STEM Network, said that while it’s important to take into account the realities of time limits teachers face, focusing on early math skills doesn’t have to mean other subjects are being pushed aside.

“I don’t think that this is an either-or proposition—I think certainly when it comes to professional development for teachers pre-K to grade 8, I think it’s more about how we integrate math and science within English language arts,” Stuart said. “It’s that integration and holistic approach, as opposed to adding something on.”

Additionally, Stuart noted, exposing kids to high-quality and engaging math and science instruction in their early years helps to create a more positive association with these subjects and can promote greater interest later on.

Like many states, California is on track to have a steep shortage of qualified workers to fill the growing number of STEM jobs. By 2022, the State Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that California will have the largest STEM workforce in the nation, and the largest share of STEM jobs in the country. Beginning this year, more than 93 percent of those jobs will require postsecondary education and training.

However, researchers from the Public Policy Institute California have found that by 2025, the state may face a shortage of workers with college training—with about 29 percent of the workforce projected to have some college education by 2025, and 36 percent of jobs requiring workers with those skills.

Addressing that gap, especially as it relates to careers in STEM, begins with ensuring children as young as 3 or 4 begin learning the most basic mathematical concepts, panelists said Wednesday.

Representatives from California State University, East Bay said that many students are enrolling in college are behind in math, which sets them back and ultimately costs them more money and time to earn a degree, if they earn one at all. They said that deficits in math education that exist before kindergarten can be addressed quickly, which can have positive long-term effects like clearing away barriers that get in the way of students pursuing careers in STEM.

Trina Ostrander, executive director of the Institute for STEM Education, said studies have shown that math proficiency as early as kindergarten can be as strong a predictor of success in all subjects as literacy, and that large gaps in knowledge early on only get worse as students move up in grade level.

Thurmond at one point expressed concern that increasing math instruction could backfire, noting that a lot of research points to kindergarten as a place for children to learn socialization skills, and that it’s important not to grind children down and give them the impression that learning isn’t fun.

“It’s not about making sure students can do pre-Algebra by age 3 or anything like that,” Ostrander said. “It’s teaching fundamental math skills and intellectual concepts that come with math—things like grouping, pattern recognition, and other simple concepts that kids can learn through experiences.”

To ensure teachers have the ability to integrate those learning experiences, a handful of speakers said teachers need more comprehensive training than what they currently receive, For instance, Stuart cited a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences which found that among elementary educators, only about a third reported having completed at least one course in the STEM subjects of life, earth and physical science during their educational programs.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget includes $490 million in one-time Proposition 98 General Fund to support educator professional development, but the recommendations provided by panelists would require much more.

In addition to expanding professional development among pre-K and elementary teachers to increase their expertise and understanding of math skills and concepts, those who spoke recommended funding more STEM teacher residency programs; money for programs to attract and retain new teachers who would otherwise be lured away by careers in tech; and even rethinking credentialing requirements to better promote understanding of mathematics and other STEM subjects.

Thurmond introduced a bill last month that aims to address some of that need. AB 2186 would create a $200 million grant fund for STEM education programs to fund professional development for STEM educators, teacher recruitment and retention programs, and computer science programming.

The bill also includes money to promote STEM education in rural school districts and aid in the development of public-private partnerships.

Of the bill, Thurmond said that addressing the chronic teacher shortage in STEM subjects and ensuring teachers are prepared to teach students of all ages is a vital component to preparing children for future careers in those fields.

“Our students must be well grounded in STEM and STEM-related fields in order to compete globally,” Thurmond said. “We must do a better job of preparing our students and that requires a strong state investment in our schools and our educators.”