For Immediate Release - October 04, 2010

Closing the Inspiration Gap: A Major STEM Challenge

Paul Reville, Secretary of Education

September 28, 2010

Before talking directly about STEM, I want to start by saying it's a good time to be in education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Notwithstanding our significant budget challenges, we are getting things done and moving ahead.

Good things are happening all over, but let me highlight just a few examples from the world of K-12 education: We earned first place in the Race to the Top and secured $250 million, helped to develop and then adopted new and more rigorous Common Core Standards in English and Math, we are the lead state in a $185 million assessment consortium to develop the next generation of assessments, the education jobs bill saved 2,700 teacher jobs statewide, we received three of 21 promise neighborhood grants awarded across the nation, just yesterday we learned we had received a $27 million teacher incentive fund grant to help us re-invent how we compensate our teachers, organizations in MA were also awarded a large share of national i3 grants to promote various forms of educational innovation, meanwhile we're using $59 million in school improvement grant funding to help design much more substantial, turnaround plans, we just received notice of a $15 million dropout prevention and recovery grant - the list grows daily.

It's a time of enormous opportunity. And at the same time, our performance results continue to soar on MCAS, SAT, NAEP, ACT's, you name it, Massachusetts continues to lead the nation on performance as well as on reform strategy.

It is indeed a very promising time, in spite of our formidable budgetary challenges.

Massachusetts is a state on the move and we're being tapped time and again to lead national policy because of our track record of success with student achievement, our vision and our commitment to public education.

Today we are renewing our commitment to a brighter STEM future for Massachusetts, and we're making bold plans for how to get the job done. I'm proud to be part of that planning process and to work with so many of you to make good things happen for our students, schools and employers in the Commonwealth.

I want to thank the Governor for his leadership in recognizing the importance of meeting the STEM challenge and the Lt. Governor for his deep commitment to improving our efforts.

This is complex and challenging work, and we need to be clear on the problems we're trying to solve as we go forward.

Massachusetts is a world leader in the STEM fields.

We are home to some of the world's cutting edge companies and greatest research universities. We have double the national average number of STEM jobs, 6% of employment versus 3% for the nation.

As you can see from this great gathering today, we have universal buy-in from teachers, principals, superintendents, higher education leaders, business partners and community-based organizations - all with the same goal of improving outcomes and opportunities for our students.

In Massachusetts, the focus on STEM has led to distinguished results in education.

Our students have ranked first in the nation in math for three straight administrations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Our public high school students ranked first in Math on the 2010 SAT. And Massachusetts students in the class of 2010 ranked first nationally in Math and Science on the ACT exams.

Our students also excel internationally. According to the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, 8 th graders in Massachusetts tied for first in the world in science and ranked sixth in math while 4 th graders ranked third in math and second in science.

We are justifiably proud of these results and committed to continuing leadership in STEM. We know that our future will depend on brainpower rather than natural resources, cost of living or climate.

An outstanding STEM education system is not an option for Massachusetts. It is essential.

As we look more deeply at our performance, we see that not all the news is good. We realize that our high averages in MA sometimes give the mistaken impression that every student is enjoying the high quality education that those averages suggest.

This is not the case.

Despite our outstanding performances on various national and international tests, significant proficiency and achievement gaps persist; in fact, we have some of the largest achievement gaps in the country.

Doing well isn't good enough. Why? Because the goal of education reform was to educate all of our students to a high level, not just some. All means all. That's what we meant when we started on this reform journey in the late 80's and early 1990's, that's what we mean now. All means all.

We're not there yet.

For example, we can see these pernicious gaps on the 2010 MCAS exams:

  • Less than half of our 4 th graders and barely half of 7 th and 8 th graders scored proficient or higher in math. That's a general proficiency gap.
  • Asian and White students have nearly double the rate of scoring proficient and higher than African American and Latino students in virtually every grade tested in both math and science. That's an unacceptable achievement gap.
  • On the third grade MCAS test in Math in 2010, 78% of Asian students and 73% of White students reached proficiency and higher while only 40% of African American and 42% of Latino students did.
  • On the Science, Technology, Engineering test, just 13% of African American and 13% of Latino students are reaching proficiency and higher compared to 54% of Asian and 47% of White students.
  • In math, just 28% of African American and 25% of Latino students are reaching proficiency and higher compared to 74% of Asian and 58% of White students.

Such gaps ought to be unacceptable for all of us. And, we're here to do something about them. But, just as importantly, there is another alarming and less readily apparent issue that needs our attention: the lack of student interest in STEM.

In 2009, Massachusetts students report interest in studying STEM in college at a rate well below the national average: 22% versus 28% nationally.

The interest in STEM has improved with the Class of 2010, and I'm encouraged by that trend, but the fact is that we should be far, far ahead of the national average. The fact that we lag behind the nation is astonishing in a state with such high STEM achievement, so many STEM jobs and employers, and so many universities.

STEM is so richly represented in the Commonwealth and yet interest in these fields is lagging. How can that be?

There are jobs open right now in the STEM fields and our best chance at a strong economic future is to grow the talent to attract business to locate here in the STEM fields to fill those positions and drive the jobs of the future.

To illustrate this interesting point further, an analysis by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts showed that students in schools with higher STEM performance indicated less interest in continuing their studies than those in lower performing schools.

In fact, there appears to be double the STEM interest in the lower performing schools relative to higher performing schools.

We must build on the interest of students in the lowest performing schools to increase their achievement and possibilities while in higher performing schools, we would do well to analyze the causes of low interest levels in some of our higher performing schools by actually asking students to tell us what's going on and then figuring out how to remedy the causes of disinterest.

The lack of exceptionally high levels of STEM interest in an obvious STEM-advantaged state is a stunning finding and a major challenge for all of us at the Summit.

Is it possible that we have succeeded in training students to perform well on tests but failed to inspire them to embrace the excitement, rigor and fun of tackling complex STEM challenges?

How have we created an "inspiration gap" in STEM education?

How do we fix it?

Stepping back then to analyze our STEM educational challenge we see two critical elements, problems to be solved: achievement gaps and the inspiration gap.

Our core education reform work is in closing achievement gaps through the Governor's legislation and our Race to the Top proposal where we have outlined a series of strategies to change the conversation in underperforming schools, provide more services for students, promote innovation, raise academic expectations, increase support and training and incentives for teachers and make it possible to alter the length and content of the school day.

We have adopted broader, deeper Common Core educational standards in English and Math, which will provide additional rigor to our STEM expectations.

Our winning Race to the Top proposal will then provide us with the financial resources to actualize some of our strategies.

At the same time, we are leading a 26 state national assessment consortium which will create the next generation of educational assessments and, we believe, drive highly effective instruction by allowing us to utilize the advances in technology and psychometrics to deliver real time, overnight data to teachers on student mastery of key concepts and skills.

These new measurement tools will help improve our assessment strategies with the use of computer simulated scientific experiments which will enable students to demonstrate that they can think and work like scientists harnessing their content knowledge to concrete laboratory challenges in search of evidence.

As you heard from the Lieutenant Governor, we now have a host of other RTTT supported strategies to close achievement gaps and advance scientific learning for all including the establishment of six STEM Early college High Schools, bolstering STEM AP participation, training a specialized cadre of 250 STEM teachers, providing more technical assistance to districts wanting to improve STEM programs, and substantially enhancing professional and curriculum development opportunities throughout the state.

As we address the many facets of the STEM academic challenge, we must simultaneously tackle the challenge of the inspiration gap, developing the ways and means of motivating students to put forth the energy and the effort necessary for them to attain high levels of achievement.

Policymakers tend to avoid talking about motivation because it is not readily influenced by educational policy; rather motivation is something students derive from life circumstances like family and friends and hopefully from an inspiring and skillful teacher.

If we are to build a robust pipeline of STEM-talented students, we will need to improve curriculum and instruction, to be sure. But, first, we must inspire them so they will be motivated to learn.

In a recent column in the Washington Post, author Robert Samuelson addressed this readily apparent but not always accepted challenge.

In recognizing pockets of success in education reform and increased student achievement taking place across the country but noting the "failure" of states to take the success to scale - Samuelson notes:

"The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail."

He goes on to make the case that students aren't motivated because, among other reasons, they don't find school engaging. Boring is how they typically put it.

Lack of motivation, and the attendant lack of effort, is not just a school problem nor is it a problem that teachers can solve by themselves.

This is a problem that relates to our culture, to our media, to students' families and peers and many other factors. Teachers are not usually the cause of the problem and they cannot succeed without students providing effort.

We all have to help which is why I am so glad to see so many people here today from so many different walks of life. We need your help in engaging our students.

Students must have the inspiration to supply the effort necessary to absorb classroom lessons in new and more meaningful ways. I believe STEM provides a unique opportunity to engage students in a way that excites them and motivates them.

We must amplify efforts to bring STEM to life with a new focus on hands-on learning through engaging, content-rich curricula that emphasize the application of knowledge to current, real world challenges.

Classrooms must be vibrant environments that encourage creativity and exploration. We must capture the interest of students, provide them with a solid base of knowledge and then teach them how to think and act like scientists.

To do this, we know that we have to recruit new and support current teachers with deep content knowledge, radiant enthusiasm and the capacity to build learning experiences, which will inspire young scientists. Teaching is the key, the absolute sine qua non.

Further, we need to increase partnerships between businesses, museums, scientific organizations, universities and schools and provide more support for families at home.

And we need to ensure that our assessments are driving high quality instruction and providing the necessary feedback to help teachers perfect their craft.

One of the keys to our success will be an increased effort to spark the interest of students in the earlier grades.

In the earliest years when these STEM topics are first introduced, they should be highlighted in a way that kindles interest and sparks in students that sense of excitement, curiosity, the connection to something important and infinite possibilities.

The inherent curiosity of younger children should lead to natural connections to the STEM fields and be fully cultivated right from the start.

Back when I was a young, not very scientifically gifted parent, I had a son who I wanted to inspire to think like a scientist. What did I do? Since I knew I wasn't going to be the one to inspire him, and he wasn't getting the inspiration at school, I set up an internship for him with my brother-in-law who was then a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School. Several years later, Nicholas enrolled in the Massachusetts Math Science Academy and has gone into a technology-based career.

But the work is not done; my work is not done. My eight -year-old daughter and I were in Syracuse recently and when I proposed a museum visit, she immediately said "yes" but when she found out it was a science museum, she said "I don't want to go if it's about science. It's boring." She's just started third grade and happens to love various forms of applied science and, indeed, when she overcame her reluctance and visited the museum she became immediately engaged in many of their fascinating, hands-on, applied science exhibits.

Somehow school has not yet engaged her interest in science.

If we want students to excel in STEM fields, we obviously need to interest and engage them as early as possible.

As students get older and into the secondary grades, their STEM education must link them to the real world and not only excite them but engage them in the work, show them that they have a place and that seriously pursuing these subjects creates a rich set of promising possibilities for a meaningful future, doing important work in this economy and society. Doing STEM work creates hope, meaning and possibility for a better personal and societal future.

Once students are interested, teachers must fan those flames of interest by engaging students deeply in rich curriculum and challenging tasks that build knowledge and skill while deepening and broadening the sense of interest and possibility.

Scaffolding an engaging curriculum is the most important job for our STEM teachers whose greatest challenge after kindling interest is to translate, through instruction, curriculum and experience, that nascent interest into full blown engagement wherein students voluntarily put forth the vital effort necessary to conquer the rigors of tough STEM subjects.

In the end, we need to do a better job than we are currently doing at recruiting, preparing, selecting and developing STEM teachers who are not just competent in content knowledge, but teachers who are fully STEM knowledgeable, highly skillful instructors and over the top excited, I mean passionate, actually passionate about these subjects.

What a difference that would make! Finding, cultivating and supporting great teachers is the heart of the matter.

This is especially true in the elementary grades, but, truly, we need these teachers throughout our education system from early childhood right through graduate study.

And teachers and various education partners are inspiring, engaging and motivating students every day in classrooms and workplaces across the Commonwealth.

We are proud of these rich examples of successful student engagement.

At my peril, because there are so many fabulous programs that I won't have time to mention, I do want to highlight a few programs which exemplify the inspirational characteristics that our students so desperately need:

The Museum of Science through its Engineering the Future program is making available to schools across the country a field-tested, hands-on curriculum for high school science and engineering courses that "immerses students in design and building challenges reflected today's real world engineering problems from testing a boat model to constructing a building prototype."

High schools across Massachusetts are utilizing this program to again show students a path to long-term, gainful employment in industries with high demand right now and bright prospects for the future.

Meanwhile, 334 teachers from 128 districts have been trained through the program.

No organization has shown more leadership in making science engaging to students than the Museum. No one has done more for STEM education in Massachusetts than Yiannis Mioullis, the Museum's visionary leader.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School has developed the Worcester Pipeline Collaborative with the Worcester Public Schools and other partners to provide the education, mentoring and training necessary to prepare students for careers in the medical field with immediate openings.

They saw a need from local employers. They saw a need from students who did not have career goals. They saw an opportunity to make a meaningful connection by providing students with the knowledge and skills necessary to obtain and maintain a solid career path while at the same time meet an increasing demand for talented and dedicated employees.

I've had the great pleasure of visiting the Harvard Medical School High School Biosciences Program that partners with Madison Park High School in Roxbury, Brookline High School and Watertown High School to welcome biology students into hospitals to participate in emergency medical simulations and witness actual surgical operations.

This type of inspiring exposure opens the eyes of students in a way that a textbook or even an online lesson is simply unable to accomplish. And speaking of inspiration - we don't have many teachers with us today - but the lead teacher in this program, Julie Mowschenson, is with us and she is the embodiment of an inspirational, passionate teacher.

And we are delighted with the recent news of Tufts University providing high schools with scientific equipment to bring state of the art experiments back to classrooms.

Science classrooms must be vibrant laboratories and this program provides many local schools with the modern equipment they need to successfully charter a course of educated experimentation.

At the same time, Tufts Veterinary School is operating several programs designed to engage K-12 students with animals in veterinary practice.

Our state's math-science high school, the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science, located at WPI, is a beacon of STEM educational practice serving some of our most talented students.

Then, there are a host of competitions and demonstrations that intrigue and deeply engage our students in hands on work.

Programs like the Massachusetts Science and Engineering Fair, First Robotics, Skills USA and the Real World Design Challenge are making STEM topics fun and totally engaging. We need more!!!

In fact, these examples don't even scratch the surface of all of the hard work and partnerships flourishing from the Cape to the Berkshires to provide young people with an excellent education and an excellent career.

Partnerships like these will be of inestimable value in closing the interest and achievement gaps in the STEM fields.

Most importantly, these programs, and the many like them, help make the outcomes of education real for students. Our challenge is to take these programs to scale to ensure every student has the same opportunity.

These programs and the many like them give us hope, hope for a more robust and better prepared generation of students who will lead the Commonwealth into the 21 st century tackling persistent challenges through the use of emerging technology and developing new theories.

These are exciting times and we have a real opportunity to make substantial and sustainable changes that will further cement our role as national education leader and the front-runner in STEM.

As we move forward in these challenging budgetary times, STEM educational development is unquestionably a top priority.

We have jobs to grow, achievement gaps to close and the challenge of inspiring our students to embrace the STEM fields which are so rapidly becoming vital to our society and to our economy.

Our work is improving schools but we cannot lose sight of the fact that inspiration will be the key to our success.

We have learned from 17 years of successful education reform that setting high standards, assessing progress and holding teachers and schools accountable for student learning can lead to great achievement but we recognize that our work is nowhere near being done - especially in STEM.

We need the best, most knowledgeable teachers who can inspire our students to deliver the motivation which is essential to student achievement. A more dynamic STEM education will guarantee that our students are ready and motivated to fully engage in and benefit from the Commonwealth's promising STEM future.

Let me conclude by putting a little bit of a face on what I've said about inspiration.

Following are a couple of sentences excerpted from the journal of a student enrolled in one of the programs I mentioned. In the end, this is what inspiration resulting from inspired teaching is all about. Here's what a closed inspiration gap sounds like:

"I came into your class with the smallest idea of medicine, aside from my grandpa's stories and what I learned from House. You taught me more than I have learned in my entire schooling so far. I fell in love with medicine, and it gave me the motivation to improve my grades in my other classes.

After "graduating" that class, I have at least five times the motivation as I did before for school. I will become a doctor. I can do it, all because of Medical Careers, my sophomore year. Thank you soooo much."

Why can't we do this for all students? All means all.

Thank you for your time and attention and more importantly for your commitment to closing our achievement and inspiration gaps.


Information provided by the Executive Office of Education. Created: October 4, 2010