STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

About Joanne


  1. This is nuts. We have very little challenge in the way of language arts. Our curriculum certainly isn’t LA centric. Kids are allowed to fake their way through any work of literature using spark notes. Meanwhile, high schools have actual advanced math and science classes.

    • Everyday Math and the push for kids to write about math and to explain their work in writing – as opposed to showing their work – were major factors in the parent-caused switch to Singapore Math at my grandkids’ school. It took almost a decade, I understand. Without mastery of the fundamentals in ES, most kids won’t get to advanced classes in HS. Savvy parents make sure it happens at home/tutoring, if necessary, but the others won’t.

  2. We’ve dumbed down everything else, now lets start dumbing down requirements for STEM careers (I see bad times ahead if this goes forwards)…


  3. “Everyday Math and the push for kids to write about math and to explain their work in writing – as opposed to showing their work – were major factors in the parent-caused switch to Singapore Math at my grandkids’ school.”

    There’s not much research supporting Singapore Math. I’m no fan of Everyday Math. Few high school teachers are. But the idea that it’s doing damage is unproven. As is your assertion that “savvy parents supplement”. No, most of them really don’t. The kids that are capable of learning math learn math.

    • Maybe kids in your area aren’t tutored but that’s not true everywhere. Where those grandkids live, tutoring is HUGE. Until SM, the local Kumon could count on having essentially all the ES kids whose parents didn’t tutor them at home; the director admitted as much in the article announcing the switch to SM – also validated by the experience of my family and their friends. Maybe it’s an east-coast thing – and not just among Asians

  4. “No, most of them really don’t. The kids that are capable of learning math learn math.”

    Cal has been desperately clinging to this belief for ages in spite of so much evidence otherwise. Parental help and tutoring are huge. This is not so much about a battle between Everyday Math and Singapore Math as it is about having someone – anyone – enforce mastery of the basics. Everyday Math is a culprit because it tells schools to “trust the spiral”. It is fundamentally flawed. I saw bright kids who did not know the times table in fifth grade. This is a direct result of full inclusion and how differentiated instruction does not work. I had to ensure mastery of the basics in the lower grades for my “math brain” son. “Capable” kids don’t just magically learn math. And now Common Core institutionalizes a NO STEM curriculum starting in the lowest grades.

    • Unlike you, I don’t just rely on what I “believe”. I have far more actual experience than you, and considerably more data. And yes, capable kids do learn math. Moreover, the problem with CC is hardly that it’s too easy.

      Momof4, I’ve been a tutor for over a decade, remember? Who do you suppose knows more about what kids do, what their parents do, and what value Kumon has (as to the last, zero)? Me or you?

      • Without some objective measure of skill the value of your experience is impossible to determine.

        You’re certainly not helping your claims to expertise though with your “The kids that are capable of learning math learn math” comment. The inescapable conclusion is that teaching skill’s immaterial which is a popular excuse for the failures of public education but a fascinating admission coming from someone who claims to have done a lot of tutoring.

  5. Cal has never been willing to calibrate anything, so now it’s done by definition. If you are successful, then you are “capable”. If you are not successful, then you are not “capable.”

    Absolute statements don’t require much data to refute, but in this case, there is a ton of it. As for CC, educational opportunity is not defined by averages. For many kids, NCLB was, and CC is meaningless. For PARCC, their highest level (“distinguished”) only means that a student would likely be successful in a college algebra course.