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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

December 30, 2014 at 5:00 AM

It’s possible to love science and math. Hoosier ‘Leads the Way’

Bertram pic

Vince Bertram visiting with high school students in rural Indiana in 2011. Courtesy photo.

Acronyms are the bane of the education writer. Attempt to dissect test scores and you find yourself untangling definitions for NAEP, EOC and MSP. Try to discuss science, technology, math or engineering and you must first stumble through the obstacle course called STEM.

No doubt, this dissuades readers, too, which is a problem because those four subjects have become so daunting to Americans that our very economy is threatened. That’s a point central to a new book by former school superintendent Vince Bertram, and one that riles anyone who sees education as a zero-sum game: Nurture one area of study and you necessarily starve another.

Bertram sees no need for such a siloed approach. What if we explained to students who dream of becoming NBA stars or millionaire musicians that rappers use technology to mix their singles, that athletes need engineering for better sneakers?

Essentially, this is the concept behind Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit that aims to boost science and tech in public schools, particularly those that educate low-income students. The program’s real-world approach attracted dozens of kids at Toppenish High School to advanced math, as noted in this Education Lab piece from last spring.

Bertram, president and CEO of Project Lead the Way, has now published a book, “One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology Engineering and Math Crisis.” And if the title does not impel you to run out and buy a copy, Bertram has used his slim volume to distill the essentials:

  • Start early (even in preschool) because kids form their attitudes fast. “Turn a student off from math or science in an early grade and you can almost never make up for that,” he writes.
  • Treat science and math as building-block subjects — important as reading and writing. (Bertram cites one study that found 40 percent of science professionals and graduate students became interested between ages 5 and 10.)
  • Improving math and science training for elementary teachers.

Those wondering about the author’s political pedigree won’t have to search hard. Bertram trots out a rogue’s gallery of reformers: Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, William Bennett, Chester Finn, Steve Forbes and even Michael Milken. He quotes the Wall Street Journal. He cites Teach for America.

That will lead many to ignore his message — a shame, because much of it should transcend political battle lines. For instance: NAEP scores from 2013 show that almost 35 percent of high school seniors could not do this math problem: 360 x .03. (So weak were their skills that about half of those who got it wrong thought 3 percent of 360 was a number greater than 360.)

And in a passage that will resonate for teachers (and parents) who despise the looming presence of standardized tests, Bertram — a former Indiana school superintendent — asks readers to dump the belief that second grade is merely preparation for third, and that teaching content is primarily a way to get through exams.

In fact, he says, third-graders could be learning about axles and levers to design machines for rescuing animals that fall into ditches. Summertime swimming lessons could be an opportunity to teach students about buoyancy. Ocean waves? Maybe a quick chat about gravitational forces. Baseball? An illustration of velocity and drag. And baking, as everyone knows, is all about math.

Comments | More in News | Topics: STEM, Toppenish, Vince Bertram

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