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In the Push for Better STEM Education, Don't Forget These Two Pieces

Published:  February 9, 2012

This week and next, the STEM acronym will get some major airtime, as the Obama Administration tries to drive home the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in its new budget proposals.  The President kicked off the conversation in his State of the Union Address, and he provided some memorable visuals two days ago when he gleefully launched marshmallows from student-invented cannons at the second-annual White House Science Fair.  

All this talk of science and innovation might lead one to think that literacy and early education are sliding down a notch on the Administration’s priority list. Let’s hope not. In fact, this is an opportunity to demonstrate how tightly linked these three pieces are.  We won’t create smart scientists without helping students develop rigorous reading skills, and those reading skills will be hard to develop without giving children a strong foundation of early learning, starting long before kindergarten and continuing unabated throughout the early grades of elementary school.

A recent forum at the American Enterprise Institute, perhaps timed to ensure that the literacy problem isn’t forgotten, highlighted the urgency of improving reading instruction.  “It is my belief that if we don’t figure out how to teach reading and writing better,” said Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools and a panelist at the event, “any kind of school reform will be ornaments on a dead tree.”

Jean-Claude Brizard, superintendent for Chicago Public Schools, offered his city as an example of failed approaches so far, recounting 20 years of literacy initiatives including the Chicago Reading Initiative and Reading First. Despite it all, he said, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows “flat” achievement over the years, and a recent analysis of reading scores showed that only 17 percent of students in the city are reading proficiently.

The situation across the country isn’t much better. Only one-third of fourth-graders are reading proficiently (often denoted as “at grade level”), according to the latest NAEP scores.  This is the impetus for several state-wide reading initiatives. It is also what prompted the nation-wide Campaign for Grade-Level Reading started last year by a group of philanthropies, steered initially by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  

For those of us in early education policy, the roots of the literacy problem stare us in the face every day. They are born out of the dearth of high-quality language and literacy experiences for young children, especially those whose families struggle to afford preschool and have little access to good childcare.  A growing body of early education studies – including a 2009 case study from the Early Education Initiative on the Intensive Early Literacy program in several of New Jersey’s school districts – show the benefits of a PreK-3rd grade education that includes research-based literacy instruction and is soaked with oral language experiences and rich content deriving from well-stocked book shelves and engaging storytimes. 

What does this have to do with STEM education?  When children enter school with the bare minimum of language skills and little awareness of print, they are likely to struggle in learning to read. If remediation programs and interventions don’t work by the time they reach middle and high school, those struggles can become a huge impediment to their progress in all courses, including science and math.

A video making the rounds on the Internet provides a compelling case in point. It is narrated by Paul Anderson, a teacher at Bozeman High School in Montana who broadcasts his ideas on YouTube, and focuses on how Anderson uses gaming technology in his A.P. biology course. It's fascinating stuff, but listen closely to what Anderson has to say about reading:

Anderson stresses on two separate occasions that his students will only succeed if they understand what they are reading.  “Reading comprehension is a big deal,” Anderson says. Without strong reading skills, his students cannot grasp the scientific concepts required for scoring well in the game and doing well in his class. 

The push for  better STEM education is important, and there’s little doubt that we need more teachers  with backgrounds in science and engineering. In fact, this movement should also include pre-K, kindergarten and early-grades teachers trained in how to take advantage of young children’s natural curiosities by introducing them to the fundamentals of scientific inquiry. But we cannot lose sight of the literacy skills that today’s students will need to succeed as tomorrow’s scientists, engineers and inventors. We must push for investments that provide good literacy instruction throughout school and establish a strong base of language development in children’s earliest years. 

To build a new generation of innovators, we have to recognize the critical connections between STEM, literacy and early learning.

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