Nope, I didn’t make up that word. It appears in an essay written by Alfie Kohn last week for The Huffington Post called “STEM Sell: Are Math and Science Really More Important Than Other Subjects?” This should be a ridiculous question – as an experiment, ask yourself the question over and over again, substituting all the various school subjects for ‘math’ and ‘science’. Once you do this you might realize that the key words in the question aren’t math or science at all; the words more important are the troublemakers. I could posit that The Arts are More Important than other subjects, and there would be plenty of people lining up to support me and just as many lining up to argue with me. And those arguing the prominence of English and Language Arts would be in the next room, and down the hall from them would be the History and Social Studies champions, and so on, and so on. At some point it might begin to dawn on us all that we need more than one ingredient to bake a cake.
Ridiculous as it may be, the question is a timely one for us in Bristol and Warren, as our school district seems to be jumping on the STEM bandwagon like so many other districts around the country. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, and right now in Bristol and Warren, administrators are working on plans to focus our schools’ efforts on raising standardized test scores in math and science, just as they focused on raising the writing test scores a few years ago. Certainly the effectiveness with which math and science are taught in public school classrooms around the country needs to be improved, but this can be better addressed by improving undergraduate programs at teachers’ colleges, and by refining in-service professional development and district hiring practices. On the surface there may be nothing wrong with setting a goal to improve math and science test scores, but the trouble arises when we apply the real world limitations of the school day to the stated goal and realize that what’s being left unsaid is “at the expense of [fill-in-the-blank].”
There are budget limitations to consider. Last week our district administration handed out pink slips and bumping slips, an annual process that nobody enjoys but one that’s mandated by legislation and by practicality. But when a school district decides to focus on math and science, does that mean teachers of other subjects will be let go in favor of retaining, or even adding to, the science and math staff?
Time is another constraint – our teachers’ schooldays are already incredibly micromanaged, to the point where every minute can be categorized and subcategorized such that the teacher is expected to show evidence that the mandated number of minutes have been spent each day on the designated curriculum programs. If our teachers are informed that the district’s focus is math, math, math, it’s going to be that much harder to build in opportunities for creativity and integrated learning, because these kinds of lessons take time to plan, and time to execute, and time is already in short supply. Without a supportive administrator, it will be virtually impossible.
We are fortunate in Bristol and Warren to have a number of administrators and educators who know firsthand the benefits of arts education and arts-integration, but this awareness is still too patchy and therefore vulnerable. Now more than ever, as budget cuts loom and STEM takes hold, we must remember that the true mission of our schools is not to squeeze the highest standardized test scores we can from each student as they pass through the system, but to educate our children for a lifetime of success. In order to achieve this mission we must educate the whole child and not just one part of their brain, we must educate every child and not just one type of learner, and we must educate our children to consider the entire world, and not just one aspect of it.