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Monday, October 4, 2010

STEM Education Center Comments on Draft National Strategy for Financial Literacy

By Georgia Perry-Ray

Regulatory Analyst and Communications Specialist, Stem Education Center

The Stem Education Center is dedicated to its motto “Write it so they can read it”. We believe that this holds true for any organization trying to disseminate information for a desired result, be it learning specific standards in an educational environment, or in the day-to-day realm of finance for the average American trying to make sound financial decisions.

With this in mind, we recently responded to a request for comment by the United States Treasury’s Financial Literacy and Education Committee (FLEC) on it’s Draft National Strategy, for Financial Literacy. The FLEC was established by Congress and is comprised of twenty-one federal agencies chaired by the Treasury Department. One of the primary responsibilities of the FLEC is putting forward a national strategy to promote financial literacy and education of the American people.

It has been our experience as a private company working with government agencies, that simply providing a variety of tools and information does not always lead to a particular desired result. There is a progression of ever increasing knowledge with every individual, which can be precisely described in the terms of the core concepts at each level. We believe that words and the understanding of those words embody core knowledge. The underlying assumption being that terminology and subject matter always corresponds.

That is, in order to learn about X one has to talk about X. More technically, we define a concept as what one has to know in order to use a term correctly. A concept is therefore a body of knowledge. In any given subject the concepts are part of the core knowledge and therefore to learn a subject is to learn its terminology. In our response to Treasury, we emphasized our belief that any design or strategy to better enable the American people to make sound financial decisions must include in its strategy a mechanism that takes this into account when developing financial tools and educational material for a diverse audience. We further believe the use of issue analysis and the issue tree to be an effective tool to achieve this end.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

National Science Standards Coming

By David Wojick Ph.D.
Co-Director of the STEM Education Center

The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences has embarked on a bold project to kick off the development of a new generation of K-12 science education standards. A NRC committee of scholars is developing a “conceptual framework” for the new national standards. See:

My STEM Ed Center colleague Bernie Monahan and I each submitted comments on the draft NRC Framework document. They draw upon our new empirical model of which science concepts are taught when in K-12. Our model is basically a set of lists of those science terms that are typically taught in the USA, sorted by grade level. Here are the links to our comments:



Our working definition of a concept is "what you have to know to use a term correctly." That is, a concept is a body of core knowledge. So our lists of terms are actually lists of basic concepts, not just vocabulary lists. Our model is not about words; it is about knowledge.

The grade levels are our estimate of the mean average grade at which each concept is taught in the USA, based on a sample of state standards. The range for a given concept among the states can be quite large, to the point where the average grade is actually the exception. So we are not recommending these grades as necessarily the ones a standard should specify, although it might minimize disruption if that were done. The grades are simply empirical data. But as we note in our comments, the Framework grade bands are structurally inconsistent with actual practice.

Our basic finding is that it looks like we teach these concepts at a rate of between one to two concepts per hour. This seems like a heavy load indeed, so I call science education today a “marathon of sprints.” Moreover, every concept is clearly significant, so there is no obvious slack in the system. Hence our conclusion is that new concepts can only be added if some are taken out.

By the same token, some of the new methods being proposed for teaching these concepts appear to take longer on a per concept basis. This is especially true for collaborative inquiry methods. If so then adopting these methods would also require dropping some concepts from the standards, perhaps a lot of concepts. As I say in my comments, it looks like a zero sum game. That is the fundamental challenge.

By way of a personal introduction, here is an early article about my regulatory work. My background is in concept analysis and confusion: http://www.stemed.info/engineer_tackles_confusion.html. I am approaching the science standards issue as a regulatory problem, not an educational one. That is, it is about writing the right rules. Standards are rules.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Disparity Among Standards

By Heather Smelser, M.Ed., NBCT

Teacher Consultant for the STEM Education Center

In an article today by the Star Tribune from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, Norman Draper and Allie Shaw report that “Student scores on the Minnesota state science test continue to improve, but at a slower pace than last year.” They cite the fact that in Minnesota’s schools the students do not have to pass the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) II Science Tests to graduate but their educators say, “the science tests have an importance that goes beyond scores and passing rates.” The article states that the teachers realize that science is a field where students in the US must excel to keep up with our technological advances and to compete globally. See the complete article here: http://www.startribune.com/local/99283559.html?page=1&c=y.

Minnesota’s school systems, like systems nationwide, are seeing the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineerying and Math) Education. From that knowledge the states have developed standards that they hope will lead their students in the right direction to keep up and compete.

As a Teacher Consultant for the STEM Education Center, I have been able to compare the standards developed by each of our fifty states. Access our findings here. What we found was a disparity among state standards in the breadth and depth of what is expected from each state’s teachers and students.

Written standards range from one state’s expectation that 6th through 9th grade, “Students can understand and apply concepts related to mechanics, forces, and motion” to another state’s standard that says, “The student will investigate and understand basic sources of energy, their origins, transformations, and uses. Key concepts include potential and kinetic energy; the role of the sun in the formation of most energy sources on Earth; nonrenewable energy sources (fossil fuels including petroleum, natural gas, and coal); renewable energy sources (wood, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, and solar); and energy transformations (heat/light to mechanical, chemical, and electrical energy).”

It is glaringly obvious that the states are paying attention to basic concepts in what they want their students to be able to know and do but when standards are written in such different formats what exactly will the student be learning and how is the teacher supposed to assess what they have done?

This is but one example of state standards but shows the obvious disparity in how states are trying to achieve that STEM Education.

A Teacher Needs Tools to Teach the Standards

Dear STEM Education Team,

I am a teacher who spends countless hours searching for material to enhance my lessons. I am tired of not finding what I need on the internet or in my classroom textbooks. My county gives me the science standards that I am to teach, but I don’t have any resources to go along with them. Where can I go to easily find what I need?

A Weary Science Teacher

Dear A Weary Science Teacher,

I understand your frustrations in your attempt to find science material. I have Great News for you! There is an Educational Website that will help you! It is www.scienceeducation.gov. You will find thousands of federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) education resources on this website. You can search for your science terms and your results will be tagged by average grade level. The hits will include lesson plans, curricula, classroom activities, homework help, and information relating to professional development. This portal integrates federal agency online educational material to make them searchable via a single query.

ScienceEducation.gov is different than any other educational compendium because it offers a one-stop access to all federal STEM education content. This means you no longer have to search all different websites or government agencies to find the resources that you need. With ScienceEducation.gov, you will find relevant educational resources from various agencies and websites.

Also, ScienceEducation.gov allows you to narrow your search by grade ranges. The STEM Education team has done the work for you. The STEM Ed Team determined the grade level appropriateness of STEM topics through comparison with state education standards. Using this grade level stratification (GLS) tool, the ScienceEducation.gov resources are examined and an estimated grade range is assigned to each. This helps you know the grade appropriateness of the resource you have found. You no longer have to to sift through thousands of hits on other sites.

ScienceEducation.gov is available to the public. You can access the site, use the materials, and conduct a search anonymously. You can also register (for free) and enhance the site by tagging; providing content, media, or data knowledge; providing general guidance and comments on the resources, and rate the material on the site.

Good luck in your Science searches,
Cristin Livngston
STEM Education Consultant

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Regulation Writing is a Difficult Job

By Georgia Perry-Ray - Regulatory Analyst & Communications Specialist

Regulation writing is a difficult job. Not only does the writer need to think of what he or she is trying to convey but to whom. The audience in many cases will have diverse education levels with limited internal knowledge of the writer’s organization or its processes and procedures. Often is the case when the reader does not have the same expertise or background as the writer. Then add another layer with the burden of ensuring all of the legal aspects of the regulation are covered so as to not leave any “loop holes” and the problem is compounded.

Government regulation writers particularly struggle with this issue as the regulation often bounces back and forth for review with the legal department and the departments that are trying to disseminate the information. By the end of the process sometimes the regulation does not even resemble the original draft at all and may not even end up with the same meaning as was originally intended by law. This is true when writing regulations for internal or external use but can be particularly frustrating for the audience that is outside of that particular governmental system. For example, all of us who have ever filed a tax return and had to read through the Internal Revenue Service’s “simplified tax return filing instructions” has experienced first hand the result of regulation writing that has fallen short of our STEM motto “Write it so they can read it”. Just trying to find out if you qualify to have the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) help you with the IRS red tape can be a chore as the Advocate’s office also has” rules” that must be met before you can use their service. They are –

“If you have tried to resolve a tax problem with the IRS and are still experiencing delays or are facing economic harm, you may request the assistance of TAS.

In situations where IRS actions prevent you from providing for necessities such as housing, transportation or food; or if you own a business and are unable to meet basic expenses such as payroll, you may request the assistance of TAS.

If you face a delay of more than 30 days to resolve a tax related problem, or are not receiving a response by the date promised, you may also request assistance from TAS.”[1]

Our learning level analysis of this “simple criteria” at STEM is as follows:

1. The concept "economic harm" is basic college level economics, which many people have not learned. Moreover, the concept of "economic" is not normally applied to personal situations, such as the IRS encounters. The concept of economic harm needs to be spelled out in plain language. Several examples from ordinary life will be required to communicate this concept to ordinary people.

2. The concept "Systemic" is taken from advanced college level biology. Moreover, the concept "Systemic problem" is here a technical word of art, referring to the system of IRS regulations and procedures. This concept will be difficult to convey to ordinary people, who do not know how the IRS operates. It will even be difficult for IRS personnel.

3. The concept "normal channels" requires technical knowledge of what normal IRS channels are. Ordinary people will not know this and in some cases the folks “helping the individual determine if they qualify may not know what “normal channels” are if they do not work in that particular department.

And you thought just getting IRS to fix your problem was the difficult part.

We are by no means singling out the Taxpayer Advocate’s office for criticism as they do perform a valuable and independent service when dealing with IRS and the tax law challenges individuals face every day, nor for that matter just IRS. This is just one example of the problems a regulatory writer faces when trying to convey information to a diverse audience. Knowing your audience plays a vital role inside and outside of your organization and can greatly impact how that regulation is put into practice.

[1] Excerpt from Toolkit-2010 TAS

Thursday, July 8, 2010

STEM Education is a Regulatory Regime

By David Wojick Ph.D.
Co-Director of the STEM Education Center

Every state now has detailed standards that govern STEM education. We have listed them here . The names of these standards vary widely, which is in itself confusing, so I will refer to them all as “Standards of Learning” or simply SOLs.

With the rise of SOLs over the last few decades, STEM education has become in effect a regulatory regime. What concepts are taught in which grades is now mandated by rule, sometimes even by law. Compliance is determined by testing. Viewed as regulations, the SOLs we have seen are woefully inadequate. They are not being written as regulations should be, even though they are de facto regulations. Instead they are typically written as lofty and vague goal statements, which makes for a great deal of confusion at the compliance level, which is in the classroom.

Consider for example this typical SOL requirement: "The student will investigate and understand that magnets have an effect on some materials, make some things move without touching them, and have useful applications."

Note that there are two basic requirements, one for investigation and the other for understanding. These seem to have equal weight, but in reality it is probably only understanding that can be tested for. The investigation requirement is hopelessly vague.

Three concepts are required to be understood, but the third, "useful applications," is also completely vague. How will it be tested for? Moreover, this is a Kindergarten SOL and it is questionable whether children so young can even understand the abstract concept of "useful applications," which is quite sophisticated. If not then the requirement is impossible as stated.

In short, viewed as a regulation this simple looking SOL requirement is simply dreadful. And so it is with most STEM SOLs that we have examined. We are not experts on STEM education per se, and education is not the issue here. Rather we are experts on regulatory and scientific communication who have spent three years analyzing STEM SOLs from a regulatory point of view. In a regulation every word counts, so every word must be clear. Regulations are not goals, they are commands.

Effective regulation requires effective communication to the compliance community, in this case to the teachers, and then to the students. Our motto: "Write it so they can read it" begins with the standards themselves. The goal of regulation is not simply words on paper reflecting lofty goals, it is real world behavior based on realistic goals. We do not see this in today's SOLs.

The solution is to approach standards as regulations, as instruments of communication, not as vague goal statements. Everyone in the system needs to know what the rules are, including the students and their parents. Clarity, communication and realism must be the first priority.

For more on confusion in standards: http://www.stemed.info/standards_and_policy.html

For background information on my regulatory communication work, see:
“Engineer tackles Regulatory Confusion. Logician shears woolly regulations.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Science Standards across the States

By: Criss Livingston MA
STEM Education Consultant

In the United States, K-12 science teachers must adhere to rigid state standards that their students are tested and evaluated on as required by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. These standards are designed to teach the core science concepts at specific grade levels. While individual states design the standards, classroom teachers are responsible for implementing them. Many teachers have limited time frames (in the day and for the year) to teach the abundance of science concepts. Due to the limited amount of time, most teachers are rushed to complete the material and find they are unable to go in depth with a concept or explore it further. Also, many aspects of a concept can be often overlooked or left out completely. Experiments and lab time which are important to science because they teach the scientific methods and critical thinking skills are left out. Teaching without going in depth can produce students who are test savvy, but do not have complex problem solving skills.

Science standards are needed to keep pace in the global markets. Some time ago, the United States became concerned about lagging behind their international peers in the science field. In 1995, the National Science Education Standards (NSES) were produced and published in 1996; however these were not accepted by the state legislatures and boards as their state standards. As established by the National Research Council, the NSES are guidelines for the science education in primary and secondary schools in the United States. Currently, there are no National Standards.

The STEM Ed team has discovered that by not having National Science Standards, the United States lacks consistency of science standards from state to state. Currently, each state’s Department of Education develops, writes, and publishes standards of science education which they believe should be taught.

For example, in Virginia, a fourth grader may be studying photosynthesis while a student in Alaska will not learn about photosynthesis until the sixth grade. See: Photosynthesis Table. This is just one of the many problems the STEM Education Center discovered when we created our grade level stratification or GLS terms based on state standards

Another example: The concept of “battery” is not listed in the Alaska or Arizona standards, but becomes an implied term when teaching electricity. While students in California begin learning about the concept of battery in the third grade and continue building upon it in the fourth grade and again in the High School. See: Battery Table.

The STEM Ed team has spent the last few years looking at state standards and analyzing their science concepts to find similarities and differences. Because different states teach the same concept at different grades, it is difficult to compare state test results among the fifty states.
For more information on the Science behind the GLS, please see the STEM Ed’s website: www.stemed.info