I have written elsewhere about my doubts concerning the validity of arguments that link US economic performance to achievement test results (see William H. Angoff Lecture Series Report; The Huffington Post; GSEHD Working Paper 2.3). And in my last posting I had the pleasure of welcoming guest blogger Sharon Lynch, whose innovative work on STEM education is spurring considerable discussion and addressing some of the most important education policy issues we face.
Recently I had the honor and pleasure of serving as guest editor for the current issue of The Bridge, the flagship quarterly of the National Academy of Engineering. In my introductory note I suggest that there are two compelling and compatible narratives about the importance of attention to STEM (and I’m grateful to my friend and former colleague, Naomi Chudowsky, for helping me understand and articulate these ideas). The “national need” narrative is based on the hypothesis that the future of American economic competitiveness, especially in a changing global environment, hinges on an increased supply of well-educated scientists and engineers, qualified and ready to work in demanding jobs that require higher order science and math skills. The second narrative, what might be called the “equity narrative” emphasizes the glaring and persistent inequities in the distribution of educational opportunities and the deficits experienced by underrepresented minorities and women in the STEM fields.
Regardless of your ideological or political preferences, this year’s election results were a powerful reminder of what’s special and perhaps unique about the American system. Just over the bridge from here, “swing-state” Virginians swung toward President Obama and elected Democrat Tim Kaine to be their Senator, while in the Richmond area they overwhelmingly voted for Republican (majority leader) Eric Cantor. Up the road, our friends in Maryland approved gay marriage, rights for immigrant children – and casino gambling. Californians, seemingly fed up with years of education cuts, supported Governor Brown’s plan to raise taxes to support needed reinvestment in what was once among the best university systems in the world; and they rejected the proposal to abolish capital punishment. In Florida, where we still are waiting to see where the state’s swing will land when the final votes are counted, an initiative to overturn the prohibition on public funding of religious organizations failed; as did a proposed amendment that would have banned use of state funds for abortion. (Maybe I’m out of touch, but I don’t think I would have predicted these outcomes from Floridians!) Voters in DC expressed their concerns for good government by approving draconian measures authorizing the Council to expel members for “gross misconduct,” requiring the mayor or a council member to resign immediately if convicted of a felony, and prohibiting elected officials convicted of felonies from ever holding office again.
Four events last week reminded me of how special this country is and how our commitment to education makes us unique in the world.
Wednesday evening I attended my synagogue’s annual Holocaust Remembrance service. The guest speaker, Irene Weiss, turned 14 in Auschwitz. She and an older sister – two of six siblings – survived through a combination of luck and love. Two aunts protected her. She made her way to America after the liberation, and lived in Virginia where eventually she became a school teacher. Asked about why she went into education, she said she went into teaching English as a second language because she thought her understanding of foreign cultures could be helpful to kids whose first language was not English. A more eloquent statement of how our system embraces difference could not be imagined.
Thursday we celebrated at Gelman Library the anniversary of our William Taylor Archive, and had the great pleasure of hearing Deputy Mayor De’Shawn Wright, Professor Liliana Garces, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education Art Coleman comment on the Taylor legacy and its centrality in our quest to further the ideals of improving education for all children. Opening remarks by Vice Provost Terri Reed set the tone, and it was, again, made abundantly clear through the discussion that a uniquely great thing about American education is our joint commitment to high standards for learning and equity of access and opportunity. We have lots of work ahead, especially in an age of ravaging inequality, but we take on that challenge upon a foundation of hope and progress.