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Replanting the STEM

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Across New York, controversy embroils the state’s adoption of the Common Core curriculum and its associated testing. New York has led the way nationally to integrate the standards in the schools, which emphasize problem-solving after thoughtful analysis rather than rote memorization.

When the results of the first round of tests were announced last summer, New Yorkers were shocked to find that only 31 percent of students passed the reading and math exams. Last year, 55 percent passed a less-rigorous reading test and 65 percent the math exam.

Immediately there has been a hailstorm of criticism from parents who did not want to hear that their children’s performances had declined and from teachers who instead of shouldering the responsibility for better teaching blamed the tests as too challenging for their students. State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., who faced so much withering opposition from parents and teachers when he attended public forums, backed off from attending any more such sessions. That policy was short-lived, fortunately, and he has begun to reappear to make the case for the Common Core.

The Common Core attempts to get at America’s atrophying education success by requiring students to actually write essays and solve multi-level mathematics problems. What a shock that a graduate of the New York school system would be able write a series of understandable paragraphs or solve a math problem that was more complicated than 2 + 2.

The education challenge our nation is focusing on manifests itself here in New York. For more than several years, there has been a worry that there is an inadequate supply of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields. Five years ago, New York State began investing $1 billion to develop a world class semi-conductor plant in Saratoga County.

The investment has resulted in a plant employing 2,200 people. However, there is a challenge: Half of those jobs, or 1,100 people, came from out of state and another 11 percent are foreigners.

Why is that? STEM skills, says Mike Russo, Globalfoundries’ director of government relations who told the Wall Street Journal that,“we’re really floundering here in the U.S.”

In response, Globalfoundries is working with local school districts and the state university to train future workers. In addition, Bayer Corp. reports that job recruiters cannot find enough STEM degrees and thus have to rely on foreigners to fill open jobs in the United States.

Globalfoundries is looking for employees with two-year degrees in electronics, engineering or math and science to fill $30,000-a-year production slots and up to $90,000-a-year engineer openings.

It is no surprise New York faces this issue. For too many years, the public school math curriculum has inadequately prepared graduates for college-level math.

At Clarkson University, which rightly boasts that its graduates earn higher average starting salaries than graduates of Harvard, a significant number of incoming freshmen from New York schools need remedial help to pass freshman calculus. Clarkson has solved the problem by modifying its teaching, not lowering its standards. A Clarkson engineer understands calculus and leaves the university ready to compete for the most challenging engineering positions.

Achieving that success is tough on the students who find college much more challenging than high school. But for those students, the ultimate rewards are high.

On the other hand, just across town in Potsdam, the Lawrence Avenue Elementary School principal capitulated to parental complaints by promising that no student would need to do more than 30 minutes of homework a day. Not a very good message to youngsters who will be competing with students from around the world for jobs in a few years.

New York’s decision to adopt the Common Core is a good first step. The next step is to listen, redefine issues to improve teaching to achieve the goals of the curriculum rather than reduce standards that make teachers look good and parents happy.

The focus of attention must be to increase the supply of graduates with verifiable STEM skills because those students will become the successful employees of tomorrow. New York has proven the state can attract major technological corporations.

Now we have to back up our promises by providing those businesses with well-educated graduates who are growing with those investments. Success begins with the improved Core Curriculum, better teaching methods, and commissioners and principals who will not back down when faced with emotional outbursts.

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