Dr. Kamau Bobb Dishes on Policy Priorities of STEM Education (Part III)

BlackEnterprise.com: What are the policy implications for challenges in STEM education?

Dr. Kamau Bobb: In the context of computing and computational skills, the crisis in basic mathematics and literacy among so many students creates a challenge of policy priority. School districts are held accountable to students’ achievement in mathematics, reading, and social studies. Thus, they are the primary subjects tested in many states. There is a national consensus that students must have basic numeracy, literacy skills, and know something about the civic infrastructure of the country. Keeping school leaders accountable to only those subjects, however, means that those subjects receive a disproportionate amount of students’ class time. This is especially true in districts serving students of color. While education certainly requires the acquisition of rudimentary skills, it should not be limited to them.

As a process, education should also embrace unlimited opportunities for learning, exploration, and should promote critical thinking beyond the classroom. When testing season begins in the spring for millions of public school students across the country, particularly for those in challenged districts, their education is suspended in lieu of test preparation. Specifically, the education and knowledge that is built on basic literacy and numeracy is halted–an understandable, yet troublesome consequence of this crisis.

While standardized testing is ubiquitous in American education, this is a problem that affects students of color and poor students in ways that are vastly different than students of privilege. Teachers and school leaders rightly make the claim that it would be nice to educate our children, but they need to save them first–by arming them with basic skills they need to survive at a functional level. As a result of this triage system of education, innovation and other learning opportunities–like computing–are limited.

What does that mean for computer science (CS) education?

The surge of national emphasis on computer science education is having the positive result of changing education policy priorities. The Obama Administration initiative, CS for All, highlights how CS education is among the core set of proficiencies that all students need. It is moving computer science from the periphery of education to the centeralongside basic mathematics, reading, and civics. That shift is among the most significant policy outcomes.

School districts, like New York City Public Schools which has 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools, have declared that all of their students will have basic computer science education within the next decade. That is a fundamental shift in policy priority. It has unleashed a thriving array of grass roots social entrepreneurs looking to engage, excite, and encourage students of all kinds to pursue computing skills and STEM fields.

More structurally, it has led to a research agenda in the academy studying effective means of teaching computing, infusing computing into the traditional mathematics and science courses. If school leaders can be assured that, based on research evidence, the infusion of computing into core mathematics yields improved student performance, they are more likely to engage in innovative forms of instruction. It offers a tremendous opportunity for creative school districts to work collaboratively with the constellation of out-of-school programs to really complement student learning in STEM fields.

Karima Mariama-Arthur is Founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport, a boutique consulting firm specializing in professional development. Follow her on Twitter @WSRapport.