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STEAM: Arts education gaining new respect

For the past several years, people in certain education reform circles have focused their attention on STEM classes, a popular acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

The feeling has been that these are the areas that offer the most promise for future job growth and economic expansion. They're also the areas where American students typically come up short compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations.

But a new acronym has been gradually working its way into the lexicon. STEM is now turning into STEAM, with arts education being given a seat at the table with its predominantly left-brain brethren.

I first heard this new acronym at the Lawrence school board meeting on Monday, during a discussion about the board's goals for the upcoming year. Superintendent Rick Doll explained that this is now the popular thinking in education circles - that science and engineering have a lot in common with creative arts, and they should be treated as complementing one another.

On Tuesday, Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker confirmed that this is, in fact, the new direction for a lot of research in education. She said the state agency even has a "STEAM team" working on developing curricula that combines the left-brain and right-brain disciplines.

The strategy appears to be that as the state of Kansas and local school districts develop curricula centered around career clusters and pathways to prepare students for jobs in these emerging fields, they need to encourage students to take things like art and music just as strongly as they emphasize science and math.

There is a lot of research to support this idea. One recent article in Scientific American said that creative arts have a lot in common with science and technology, and that instead of being treated as polar opposites, they should be thought of as two sides of the same coin.

"We know that the scientist’s laboratory and the artist’s studio are two of the last places reserved for open-ended inquiry, for failure to be a welcome part of the process, for learning to occur by a continuous feedback loop between thinking and doing," said author John Maeda.

That has to be gratifying for all the art teachers out there who, for many years, have lived with the knowledge that when times get tough and money gets short, theirs is always the first program on the chopping block, right next to foreign languages - which, it should be pointed out, we now refer to as "world languages." (They're not all foreigners.)

The Rhode Island School of Design has an entire website dedicated to the STEAM movement. Among its ambitions s to win passage of a congressional resolution supporting STEAM education. Supporters claim so far to have 40 House members from 20 states and the District of Columbia signed on to the "STEAM caucus." None, so far, are from Kansas.

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    Kansas science and math teachers easily recruited away

    Last week, Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis posed a riddle to the State Board of Education.

    A couple of years ago, he said, Fort Hays State University graduated two new physics teachers. He asked the board to guess which school district hired them.

    The answer: None. They went to work for Sprint Corp.

    Dennis said that was an indicator of how low average teacher salaries are in Kansas, compared to what people can earn in other professions.

    According to the website TeacherPortal.com, which used data from the National Education Association, the average teacher salary in Kansas in 2011 was $46,598, ranking 41st in the country, just ahead of Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida.

    The average starting salary was $32,964, ranking 33rd in the country.

    It's often suggested that's because Kansas is a low-wage state generally, and that relatively low wages here are offset by a similarly low cost of living.

    So another way of measuring teacher pay which takes that into account is what many people call the "teacher penalty" - the amount of salary a person gives up by going into teaching, as opposed to other comparable professions which generally require a bachelor's degree or better: accounting, architecture, the clergy, journalism, registered nursing and insurance underwriting, to name a few.

    Editorial Projects in Education, the non-profit group that publishes Education Week, measures that differential every few years, most recently in 2012. Its conclusion was that a Kansas teacher earns only 88.8 cents on the dollar compared to comparable professions, ranking the Sunflower State 16th from the bottom.

    You can download the entire 2013 Quality Counts report from the group's website.

    The worst salary market for teachers by far is the District of Columbia, where college-educated adults obviously earn a lot more money working for, or lobbying, the federal government. There, teachers earn just 65.3 cents on the dollar.

    Wyoming ranked highest in the latest survey, with teachers there earning 31.4 percent more than comparable professions. Rhode Island, Michigan, Vermont and Ohio rounded out the top five.

    There are only 13 states where teachers have achieved "parity," meaning they earn at least as much as their counterparts in other professions.

    According to Dennis, that explains why it's so easy to recruit Kansas teachers away from the teaching profession, especially if they're certified in the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math.

    "It's not uncommon for math, science, chemistry and physics teachers to be recruited by the private sector," Dennis said. "They have good communication skills, they work well and collaborate well with others. They may not know everything about a phone system, but the companies can train them on that."

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