Around the Web Wednesdays 3.21.12

     This is my first installment of Around the Web Wednesdays. Every week I will gather interesting stories from around the worldwideweb to share with you all (drum roll please)…This week we will explore what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, FASEB, and climate change scientists have in common.

Athlete as Academic Advocate

     Uncontent with being just a 6x NBA champion, 6x NBA MVP, and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he of Game of Death and Airplane! fame, has taken on a new mantle: advocate for STEM education. Earlier this month, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar visited Dr. Martin Luther King Preparatory High School on Chicago’s South Side stressing that there “are only about 450 jobs in the NBA and some of them are taken, but there are thousands of jobs in science and engineering.” The relative invisibility of black/African-American academic role models when compared to black entertainment and sports celebrities was not lost on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has authored a children’s book titled, What Color is My World: The Lost History of African American Inventors.

Abdul-Jabbar remarked, “If you go to Harlem and talk to the young people there, I would say that over 90 percent of them would either want to be LeBron James or Jay-Z. And they don’t have any idea of what their potential is beyond those two areas (of sports and entertainment). And they see that as the only things available to them.” Being a green-bleeding Celtics fan, I don’t normally heap this much praise on a Laker, but in Kareem’s case he deserves it for both accomplishments on and off the court. Here’s a heartfelt thank you to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

How to be a science advocate

     Earlier this month, as many of you know, I attended the annual Drosophila Research Conference in Chicago. In addition to learning about current research in the field, the conference offers a host of workshops that focus on career development and advocacy. Unfortunately, due to timing I missed the Advocacy Lunch hosted by FASEB‘s Director of Legislative Relations, Jennifer Zeitzer. Luckily for me, Eva Amsen covered the lunch on her blog at the Node. The take home message? Any one, regardless of where they are in the science careers, can become an advocate. Points to keep in mind: Be vocal, Have a clear messageContact politicians and build relationships, & Generate public awareness.

Science advocacy: How far are you willing to go?

     Last month, documents surfaced discrediting the Heartland Institute and its anti-global warming stance. Turns out that Peter Gleick, hydrologist and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, Calif., had assumed a fake identity to get his hands on said documents. In light of this recent revelation, Juliet Eilperin explores the inherent risks associated with the lengths to which scientists will go in the name of advocacy. This quote from Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists just about sums it up, “Integrity is the source of every power and influence we have as scientists. We don’t have the power to make laws, or run the economy.”

Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough? An educator’s response.

Credit: Stephen Janis

This is an educator’s response to my earlier post: Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough?

by Eric Klein

     Evidence of the effect of external factors such as recession on academic achievement will lag far behind the actual occurrence of the factor. Let me explain what I mean with an example. Suppose Billy’s dad loses his job tomorrow and the family goes through a crisis that hinders Billy’s education. Billy shuts down academically, stops doing his schoolwork. While this will affect his grades for this year, it is unlikely to show up in his performance in standardized testing this year. However, the long-term effect of losing a year’s, two years, three years worth of learning will be exhibited in the data some years down the road.

     When state and local governments choose to underfund their school systems, this same lag occurs. It takes years for the effects of educational policy to appear in the data. Thus, I suspect it is too soon to draw any conclusions. The State of Maryland tests its kids at the beginning AND end of each school year, which makes their data valuable for assessing rate of growth in student achievement. That might be worth taking a peek at. Bare in mind, that funds from the stimulus package were allocated to keep teachers in the classroom for the 2009-10 school year, so the true effects of the recession on academic achievement don’t appear until 2010-11.

     That said, the recession is not the first instance of government underfunding education. The decline started 25 years ago when states began to fund their schools through sales tax, which is a regressive tax in that it does not keep up with growth in the economy. Thus, the recession cuts in education are not so much a disastrous event as the next phase in the deconstruction of our public infrastructure.

Related Reading:

Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher

Obama urges governors to boost education funding, calls it key to competitiveness

Eric Klein fills students’ brains with math and numbers as a Michigan high school teacher.

Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough?

This is a follow-up to an earlier post:

     Obama’s STEM education initiatives were formally proposed last week with the unveiling of his budget for fiscal year 2013. The purpose of these initiatives is to train 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2020 as well as generate 1 million new STEM graduates as part of a broader plan designed to make America the leading innovator of STEM technologies. Obama’s STEM initiatives face several problems however, the biggest being the fat chance that his budget, which rings in at $3.8 billion, gets approved by Congress. And just for argument’s sake, let’s say his budget does get passed, will his STEM initiatives be enough to counteract the affects of the recession on science and math education/achievement? Or are we effectively fighting the tide without knowing how to swim?

How the recession effects academic achievement

     The early effects of the Great Recession that officially started in December 2007 were dominated by the collapse of the real estate market and the subsequent fall of several Wall St institutions. The panic that hit the banking industry quickly spread through the country, compounded by rising oil and food prices as well as unemployment. Although, the recession itself, was a short-lived event (ending in the Summer of 2009) the lingering effects of the recession can still be felt. At the time of this post, the US employment rate was still high at 8.3%. Now four plus years out from the recession, the economy is still sluggish albeit showing signs of slow recovery.

     Long-term effects of the recession can also be felt in education. One particular area that the Economic Policy Institute identifies as being “economically scarred” is academic achievement. There report indicates that “Unemployment and income losses can reduce educational achievement by threatening early childhood nutrition; reducing families’ abilities to provide a supportive learning environment (including adequate health care, summer activities, and stable housing); and by forcing a delay or abandonment of college plans.” Echoing the EPI’s findings, the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study measuring the effects of statewide job loss on student achievement concluding that “job losses decrease scores,” particularly in math. Not to mention that “Elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding than last year in at least 37 states, and in at least 30 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels – often far below.

Rhode Island NECAP scores

     Given that the recession really took a turn for the worse in September 2008, we now have a 3+year-cohort of students (of various grades) whose standardized test scores we can track.  Rhode Island participates in the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP, often pronounced knee-cap), which is a series of standardized tests that measure student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science. Other states that take part of the NECAPs are New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Using RI as an example, I compiled RI’s math and science test scores from 2008-2011 (available from the RI Department of Elementary and Secondary Education):

     One would have expected worsening scores, however, year-over-year math and science scores either improved or stayed roughly the same for each grade. Either the recession had no effects on RI NECAP scores or the scores are a lagging indicator of recession effects. We have to keep in mind that unemployment did not hit its peak (~10%) until October 2009 and that state education budget cuts were not cut until about a year or two ago. Therefore, it would be imperative to track NECAP scores beyond 2012.

     Of course this exercise is not meant to discredit the effects of the recession on academic achievement. What we see in RI is by no means indicative of trends in math and science scores across the country. It should be noted that the RI education budget changes (FY08 to FY12) are on the lower end (see chart above) and also that RI is among the few states increasing its education budget over last year (FY11):

Are you an education policy expert? Or do you have particular insights into the effects of recession on math and science education? Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me: I would love to hear your thoughts.

Improving STEM Education

Obama’s STEM Initiatives

     Earlier this week, President Obama hosted the second annual White House Science Fair where 100 students were invited to present their research and inventions. The President used the opportunity to speak with students such as Samantha Garvey, who garnered much attention earlier this year after being named a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, shortly after her family was evicted on New Year’s Eve. Her research focused on predator-prey interactions between an invasive species of Asian shore crab and the ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa), which is native to Long Island Sound. In her study, she compared the shells of mussels raised in tanks in the absence of crabs and in the presence of crabs that were separated by cages. She found that the mussels that were raised in the presence of the crabs had thicker shells suggesting that the mussels were able to sense the presence of predators and in response produced a thicker shell for defense. President Obama also tested out a marshmallow cannon designed by with Joey Hudy (defense contractors take note!):

President Obama also used the Science Fair as an occasion to highlight his STEM (science, technology, education, and math) education initiatives:

  • A priority on undergraduate STEM education reform in the President’s upcoming budget, including a $100 million investment by the National Science Foundation to improve undergraduate STEM education practices.
  • A new K-16 education initiative jointly administered by Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to improve math education
  • Commitments from private sector groups and coalitions to do more to get students excited about STEM-related
  • New policies to recruit, support, retain and reward excellent STEM teachers, along with an $80 million investment in the President’s upcoming budget tohelp prepare effective STEM teachers.
  • A new $22 million investment from the philanthropic and private sector to complement the Administration’s teacher preparation efforts. (

PISA score results indicate: American 15 year olds are “meh” at science and math

     In an CNN Opinion article published today, former secretary of Education William Bennett writes “Two indicators are particularly worrisome, especially as this country experiences greater global competition and high unemployment. American students score 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries. In math, we are beaten by countries from Lichtenstein and Slovakia to the Netherlands and Singapore. In science, we are beaten by countries from New Zealand and Estonia to Finland and Hungary.” Damn those Lichensteinians! The results Bennett cite are from the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Conducted by the Paris-based  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA is a standardized-test that measures literacy in reading, science, and math. Started in 2000, the test is administered worldwide every three years. There are currently 65 member countries.

     The PISA, although well-respected, is not without its critics. Mel Riddile, Associate Director for High School Services of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), has argued that PISA ignores a significant indicator of educational performance: poverty. When Riddile adjusts the scores to take into account poverty levels, students from areas with low povery score very high on the PISA while students from areas with high poverty score fairly low on the PISA. However, Riddile compared “the scores of American schools with comparable poverty rates to those of other countries.” By doing so, Riddile assumes that the poverty rates in other countries is uniform, which is clearly not the case for the US. (Read more about poverty and education.)

Improving STEM education

     In addition to President Obama’s initiatives, William Bennett proposes five ways in which to improve STEM education–the main theme being integration at all levels. Math and science should be integrated earlier in the curriculum. The methods of science and math instruction should also be adopted in other classes to reinforce scientific ways of analysis. He argues that this integration should be carried out at a physical level too, in that science and math classes should not be segregated from the school building and should not be spun off into specialized, magnet/charter schools. Furthermore, students who excel at math and science should remain integrated with the rest of the student body to avoid being seen as different or other associated stigmas. Lastly, Bennett calls for the proper amount of (continuing) training for educators to implement these changes.

Luckily, his proposals did not include performing demonstrations that can go horribly wrong

Read the follow up blog post here.