Literacy and Numeracy

Have you ever noticed that you’ll be walking along, living your life, and then you’ll discover or learn something new and it will be everywhere? You’ll wonder: was this always a trend and I just didn’t know about it? Or is it actually new?

That’s how I feel about STEM these days. It is everywhere (and also nowhere). Two Saturdays ago, I took The Boy, The Girl, and #3 to see Big Hero 6 and spent the first 30 minutes of the movie thinking about STEM. All that cool lab and preternaturally-smart-kid-takes-on-the-goons stuff was really a brilliant showcase for science.

But, upon further reflection, I realized that getting children to think science is cool has never been the issue. The Boy has been chomping at the bit to “do real science” (by which he means chemistry) since he was in 2nd grade. Blowing stuff up is cool. And books and movies practically teem with these images.

Going back to my own (suburban) science-learning experience, Mr. Oldaker’s 10th grade chemistry class disabused me forever of thinking of chemistry as cool lab stuff. As I discovered, and as my children soon will discover, the mixology of chemistry doesn’t necessarily translate to real-world applications of science. In other words, it’s not the interest that matters, it’s what you do with it.

The applied science part of tech was lost within the body of Big Hero 6, as Hiro and Baymax and friends go on a superhero-adventure to get the bad guy, glossing over the technology that actually makes this happen (let alone the technology that puts giant, tethered fan-balloons up in the sky). But then again, it’s possible that the technology detail that actually makes this happen is probably not that interesting to watch.

And there’s also the idea that science jobs are not growing at the rate the NSF lobby would have us believe. It will be interesting to see how the national science standards / common core science learning standards roll out in schools, and how those affect learning and career achievement in the next 5-20 years. In justifying the standards, the narrative is (once again) using the language of competition.

Last week, I attended the Raise Your Hand forum on assessments wherein James Pellegrino, Distinguished Professor of Education at UIC, spoke about both the science standards and the competitive nature of testing. Not surprisingly (to me), he noted that the U.S. invented the standardized test. He also said that parents seem to have a need to compare their kids against other kids. I wonder whether it’s instinct or culture that drives this need for comparison.

As I have written previously, the need to compare (and rank) is pervasive. Like the acronym STEM (or STEAM), it is everywhere. That might make sense in the board room or the show room, but I don’t think it makes sense in the classroom. I keep asking myself why the language of comparison is so prevalent. Is it the scarcity of resources that plague urban school systems?

But here’s the thing: if we are using comparative systems to assess and rank our students, why does the SEHS exam focus on literacy? According to the handout shared with attendees of the Parent Leadership Network – Network 2 meeting (a new FACE initiative) last week, the SEHS exam “covers four subject areas: reading comprehension, vocabulary, language arts (grammar), and math word problems.” When I asked whether this focus on literacy within the test was by design, no one could answer that. For a test that purportedly filters “academically advanced students” into the selective enrollment high schools, in a time of increased emphasis on STEM, it seems odd to me that the test would focus primarily on the more subjective measures of literacy rather than on numeracy.

I suppose it could be worse. As the Gotham Gazette covered a few weeks ago, students in NYC have a one-shot deal to gain admission into the city’s SE high schools: the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). However, the SHSAT appears to have a stronger focus on numeracy. According to the NYC DoE, the SHSAT focuses on logical reasoning in addition to verbal and math components. How can Chicago have a focus on STEM and functionally ignore math on its SE exam?


One thought on “Literacy and Numeracy

  1. I bet if you compared the entrance exam to the SAT/ACT there would be very close resemblance. It boggles my mind that at the K12 level and the college entrance level, performance on literacy and math word problems is what defines someone as academically talented.

    On the issue of STEM, it is easy to get bogged down in the acronym. Science and Math are already core subjects required of everyone. There is nothing new other than a glossy set of new standards. In both the math and science standards, a core skill is computational thinking. What’s new in the CS for All initiative is requiring an introductory computer science course focused on computational thinking (not just coding), that could serve to underly the computational thinking skills in math and science. If you have not seen it, you should check out the curriculum that is being used for the intro course:

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