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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.”


Heather Smelser said...

This is the problem for teachers across the country. With vague standards being written the teacher does not know exact terminology/concepts to teach until the mandated testing takes place. Once that happens and past versions of the tests are released then teachers know the exact vocabulary that they must teach.

David Wojick said...

A concept is what you have to know in order to use a word correctly, so concepts are bodies of core knowledge. The challenge is to figure out how to specify the knowledge we want, not just the words we want. That is where the vagueness comes from.