Our students are slipping behind in global competition. This not only puts individual students at a severe disadvantage; it puts our country on a declining trajectory. This trend is particularly problematic in regard to STEM subjects.
The recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) further clarified what almost everyone in the world of education already knew: the way we are teaching students is causing them to fall behind. This is true across all types of schools.
The most important issue, then, may not be the voucher debate that has been exacerbated by the appointment of our new Secretary of Education; the most important issue may be our almost universal approach to teaching.
The world around us has changed profoundly. Nevertheless, the way we teach today in more or less the same arcane way we have for over a century.
I would like to suggest a simple, scalable solution that leverages easily accessible modern technology to develop the STEM skill set that our students need now — a solution that engenders collaborative problem-solving, cognitive flexibility and the kind of innovative thinking that is grounded in sound assumptions and reasoning.
What are the fundamental steps?
1. Throw away the books and stop asking each teacher to individually “reinvent the wheel” by creating lesson plans from scratch. Let them share lessons and best-in-class materials, and leverage technology so that teachers can collaborate to deliver improved lessons to classrooms across the country using dynamic, interactive whiteboard technology.
This will not only dramatically improve the quality of instruction, but also unify the progression of learning by providing coherence from year to year and between subjects taught in the same year.
2. Bring subjects to life with short, engaging instruction intermixed with formative assessment questions using student polling devices, so teachers can adapt their instruction to the unique needs of their students in real time.
3. Group kids at round tables and empower them to solve problems collaboratively. Better-prepared students can learn more thoroughly by helping to bring their peers up to speed; gaps in a student’s understanding can be addressed, one-to-one, by a friend.
4. Grade students on what they know and can do, not on subjective elements like participation, pleasantness, homework completion or “extra credit.” Giving students grades that don’t reflect their true understanding is not a gift; it’s a deception.
5. Encourage students to re-take tests, so that it’s not only the fastest who succeed. What’s important is that students master the learning and understand how to use their own deductive reasoning to build better lives for themselves and contribute to a stronger, more capable nation.
6. Reverse the order of traditional science instruction: teach physics in ninth grade, followed by chemistry and then biology. Physics provides a relevant context for learning Algebra I, while serving as a foundation for chemistry, and those two subjects provide the foundation for biology.
We have also learned we can develop highly motivated, effective STEM teachers by teaching STEM subjects to teachers using the same approach and materials that they will use to teach their students.
Getting STEM majors to become teachers has proven completely ineffective as a way to provide the number of new STEM teachers we need to close the gap in high school STEM access.
If all students are to take physics and chemistry in the U.S., then we need 36,000 more physics teachers and 16,000 more chemistry teachers.
Meanwhile, traditional higher education only produces about 300 physics teachers a year.
Instead, let’s empower current effective teachers to learn STEM.
Does this proposal sound too far from our current reality to work? I am happy to share that the charitable organization for which I serve as executive director, the New Jersey Center of Teaching and Learning, is making significant progress with exactly this approach.
We are the leading resource for free, downloadable, editable STEM course materials, with over two million downloads to date. The schools using this approach, known as The Progressive Science Initiative (PSI) and Progressive Mathematics Initiative (PMI), are achieving powerful results, particularly for girls and underserved minorities:
Using our approach to educate current teachers from every academic background in both the content and the skills to teach science and mathematics has allowed us to make initial inroads toward solving the STEM teacher shortage, as well as to become a top producer of physics teachers in the country.
Now, teachers in every part of the nation can learn STEM and how to teach it through online courses, with the added option of graduate credits and a path to a Master’s degree offered by Colorado State University Global Campus.
So, how about if we just cut this fight-to-the-death voucher battle short and start giving our kids access to excellent STEM education, whatever their school?
All we need to do is declare an ideological truce and collaboratively embrace an effective solution together.
I would also like to suggest a moratorium on the pile-on bashing of our teachers. Following my 20-year corporate career, I have spent another 20 years in schools, both private and public, and have been impressed by the dedication and effort I see from nearly all teachers, every day.
A national problem of this breadth and magnitude cannot be the result of individual teachers or administrators: it must be systemic.
The time has come, from my perspective, to change the system. Not only is the quality of millions of individual students’ lives at stake, but so is the quality of our country’s future.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Bob Goodman is the executive director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning and a former New Jersey Teacher of the Year.