Career educators know that school reform plans come, fade out, and then come again. They universally fail for several reasons:
- Limited staff development
- Inadequate temporary support
- Adverse community reaction
- Mobility of staff and students
Somewhat cynically, these initiatives have come to be called, “Buzzword of the Year.” Educators tolerate them, thinking, “This too shall pass.” Then we get back to work teaching as we have since 1907.
STEM lessons, with their cross disciplinary structure (including the Arts), collaborative learning, and high level thinking requirements, are anything but traditional.
STEM middle school assignment: In your groups, examine this robotic arm and revese engineer it using materials at hand, CAD software and our laser mills.
The result, not a kit, built from scratch. (Edmonds School Disttrict)
STEM is a small but fundamental change to an institution that seems immovable. So, if STEM is going to succeed and stick, what assurance can be made to career educators (and parents for that matter) that this time it will be different? Will there be ample ongoing training, continuing commitment or resources, and community outreach? Can we be assured that when students and staff move to our district they will have been exposed to STEM learning? Will STEM become a standard part of teacher training? Why invest time and money for something that is transitory?
The short answer is that there are irresistible forces at work in support of STEM which will provide affirmative answers to each of these questions. I hope to show in this post that STEM is the first step in a pervasive national movement – not a buzzword.
It will be constructive to examine the last time an irresistible movement shaped American education. After the Civil War, public education was best described as ramshackle, disconnected, unprofessional, and poorly managed. By 1925, American public schools had transformed into a powerful, fully professional national institution dedicated to providing students a broad well-rounded education, a predisposition to succeed in the industrial workplace, and a better life. I think readers will see clear parallels between the historical industrial transition and the digital transition we currently face. Let’s go back to the time when the industrial revolution was really taking hold in America, and track the simultaneous transformation of American life and American schools.
By 1918 the number of single room schools nationwide had dropped to 196,037 and they would soon essentially disappear.
This had been the model for American schools for over a century. There was no notion of common curriculum, most teachers were not professionally educated or certified, attendance and enrollment was optional, and assessment was simple and varied. Financial support was minimal and schools were often faith based. For a largely agrarian society, these schools met the challenges of their day.
Then America had to deal with steam engines, mass production, electricity, internal combustion engines, telegraphs, telephones, and radio. The schools of the day were graduating students unable to cope with the expectations of the industrial workplace. But it wasn’t just schools. The social and legal norms of the entire society were matched a world that no longer existed.
As I am sure you recall from your study of this era, living conditions in the cities and factories were often horrific.
With no notion of “childhood” as we have now defined it, children were set to work for pennies a day.
Agrarian American workers had no notion of the clock-centered punctuality which we now take for granted, and this, combined with social ills like pervasive drunkenness prevented industrialists from running efficient high quality factories.
With a lack of qualified American workers; industrialists took to hiring immigrants by the millions and training them to fill their needs. It was, as is said, an exciting time.
One of Henry Ford’s English classes for his imigrant workers.
There was wide consensus that something had to be done. Every aspect of society changed, not just schools. But schools were a big part of the solution. The successful common school system of Massachusetts designed by Horace Mann during the 1830’s was replicated nationwide. He believed that:
- an ignorant public was a threat to the nation;
- schools should be paid for and controlled by the public;
- including children from all backgrounds would strengthen schools;
- schools must support our common values but be non-sectarian;
- students must be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society;
- education should be provided by highly qualified well paid, professional teachers.
Mann worked for more and better equipped school houses, longer school days and an extended school year, higher pay for teachers, and a wider curriculum.
Trade unionists and other worker groups saw this model as a way of giving their children access to a better life. But leaders of industry also embraced the Horace Mann schools – not because of Mann’s high ideals, but because of their structure.
The Mann schools were highly organized using the Prussian military instructional model which emphasized punctuality, standardized massed produced instruction, and the completion of routine tasks as assigned.
This part of the model was embraced by the powerful industrialists of the time because they saw it as a way to inculcate American students with the routines of the factory. They saw to it that the design and infrastructure of schools exactly mimicked the factories, including perfectly synchronized clocks.
Ford Model T assembly plant in Seattle.
The new Redmond Elementary, 1923
It is intentional that to this day, students move through a school the way a car moves through an assembly line.
In 1907, America needed workers who would:
- not rock the boat
- show up on time and work the full shift
- complete routine tasks as assigned
- Be a good family member and a good citizen
These are the core values of the current school model. We have even criminalized lack of punctuality! Students who are routinely tardy end up in front of a judge. These are not the core values of the digital American workplace. Only the last core value regarding citizenship and family remains, and even that – what it means to be a good citizen and parent – is being totally transformed by technology. Just as at the start of the industrial age, today’s institutions are matched to a world that no longer exists – schools among them.
So, why will STEM stick? Because a broad consensus, ranging from unions, families, political leaders, intellectuals, and corporate board members have come together in support of kicking public schools forward from 1907 to 2012. More on this coalition will appear in later posts.
STEM, which started as a modest updating of Vocational Education curriculum and methodology, has become a test bed for the new way to do school – and it is practical. Today’s economy needs millions of STEM qualified graduates. In August of 2010 at the height of the recession, there were two hundred and fifty thousand high paying jobs in STEM fields going begging for lack of qualified applicants! Hundreds of thousands more of our STEM workers are nearing retirement. Our school system is not providing graduates to fill these high paying jobs. Instead these jobs are going to young men and women from other countries – hence the genesis of the acronym STEM by government workers approving visas. Nationwide, industries, unions and political leaders are powerfully supporting STEM as a way to address this problem.
STEM has the feel of a catalytic chain reaction or a phase change. I fear that public schools that do not get on board with STEM and the other changes that follow will experience the same fate as towns that were too far away from the rail lines in 1875.
To see that society is serious about changing schools, all one has to do is note the source of the money behind the current charter school initiative and listen to the frustration with schools expressed by charter supporters from all walks of life. The writing is on the wall, and this time we cannot revert to the Horace Mann paradigm.
The good news is that when educational methodology and content matches the digital world in which our students will live, we will have the full support we need. Implementing STEM is a reasonable first step to bring schools into the digital age.
Next time: The Amazing Truth about American Industry and its New Values.