MfA President ponders STEM education crisis, solutions

Sponsored by the Math Department, President of Math for America (MfA) John Ewing gave a lecture this past Thursday, contemplating whether the United States is undergoing an education crisis, whether in Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering (STEM) or otherwise. Ewing provided several examples showing that, in reality, education in America has improved over the past few decades. For instance, many of the best universities in the world are based in the United States.

This crisis mentality can be attributed to media sensationalism and political incentives. Ewing also noted that many of the policymakers who craft our education system rely on data measures, which they themselves most likely do not understand. The nuances in these measurements can change results entirely. Many students in the audience came from cognitive science, physics and mathematics backgrounds, so the talk was incredibly relevant to these STEM majors, especially since many in the room had an interest in becoming an educator or being involved with the education system.

Funding through the Vassar Noyce Teacher Scholarship (VNTS) Program, founded by the National Science Foundation, made the lecture possible. VNTS seeks to increase the number of STEM educators in K-12 schools across high-need districts—the program awards STEM majors $20,000 a year during their junior and senior years as well as a stipend if they decide to finish their student teaching in the fall after graduation. Physics and Astronomy major and Noyce scholar Alexandra Trunnell ’17 explained, “We’re on the track to become STEM teachers and thought this talk was incredibly relevant to our future careers. I thought the lecturer did a good job in balancing how false crises have consequences while also not negating the problems in our education system. I appreciate how he also brought solutions to these problems.”

Ewing’s greatest critique of the education system was that everyone involved seems to oversimplify both the means and the ends. That is, they make educational tools like test scores into long-term goals and insensibly reduce complex systemic problems into something as innocuous as a lack of school choice or unions being responsible for the retention of poor teachers. People dichotomize nuanced issues within education into digestible viewpoints, arguing that either charter schools are unfair and ineffective or that we need to funnel more money into good schools and starve out bad ones. Ewing argued, “In education, unlike in politics, recognizing that things are complicated is crucial to finding solutions that are real” (Huffington Post, “Education—It’s Complicated,” 1.25.2017). His reasoning resonated with William Tseng ’17 who said, “It was interesting how he pointed out one of the most overlooked problems in our society, how politicians and journalists use the idea of an ‘education crisis’ to gain supporters or to sell more copies. In the end, everyone redirects their anger and all the blame is unfairly pushed onto teachers. The cracks in our education system go much further than that and everyone needs to recognize this.”

However, does this mean that there is not a STEM education crisis? Again, it is complicated. One side argues that the American education system is not pushing STEM hard enough for the nation to compete globally while the other believes that doing so will eventually cause a huge surplus of specialized workers struggling for employment. According to Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce Anthony P. Carnevale, demand for STEM workers is outpacing global supply (Georgetown University, “STEM: Executive Summary,” 2011). Carnevale concluded that while the United States does need more STEM workers, the real problem is the lack of STEM competency among the general workforce. Another study conducted by the Bureau of Labor found the STEM labor market to be heterogeneous, varying based on location, time and skillset: there is a surplus of PhD candidates aiming for tenure-track positions as well as a shortage of electrical engineers in the government sector (Bureau of Labor Statistics, “STEM Crisis or STEM Surplus? Yes and Yes,” 5.2015). Despite the media frenzy over STEM shortages, actual analysis demonstrates that this labor market does not seem to be in dire need of qualified workers as assumed.

Nevertheless, STEM education itself leaves much to be desired, an issue which pushed Ewing to become President of MfA in early 2009. Billionaire philanthropist Jim Simon founded MfA in 2004 for the collaboration of STEM educators across the country. As MfA states, “We find the best mathematics and science teachers, create opportunities for their professional and intellectual growth, and sustain them in their teaching careers. Within our community, they share knowledge, advance teaching skills, and define excellence itself—which means they can enjoy dynamic, interesting, and challenging careers without ever leaving the classroom” (Math for America, “Who We Are,” 2017).

MfA attempts to attract individuals with strong STEM skills into the education sector, specifically high schools. The program began in New York City but has expanded into Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, D.C. (Math for America, “National Network,” 2017). Through fellowships, MfA provides higher salaries, strong communal ties and teaching preparation and assistance to compete with more lucrative sectors like finance. In doing so, the nonprofit produces strong teachers who are not only highly qualified but passionate about their jobs as well, which could lead to less turnover and more consistency in inner-city schools. Eventually, retention of these educators will lead to a generation of students who can compete globally in STEM sectors. More importantly, however, these students will have the ability to think critically and enjoy learning—the goal being that they will become educators themselves and instill the same passion into a new generation. Ewing stressed the key role of these educators and the necessity of providing them with a support network so that they can thrive: “We need to find them. We need to cultivate them. We need to especially celebrate them.”

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