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Vicki Phillips: 2010 Pittsburgh STEM Summit

August 26, 2010
Prepared remarks by Vicki Phillips, Director of Education, College Ready

Our End of the Bargain

It’s a privilege to be back in Pennsylvania — where I spent so much of my career, first in Philadephia with the Partnership for Reform and later as the superintendent of the School District of Lancaster and then as State Secretary of Education.

Of course, for me, this is a little like “Hotel Pennsylvania” — you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. That’s because in my current capacity I’m still working with Pennsylvania — the Gates Foundation is investing $40 million in Pittsburgh Public Schools through an effort we’re calling “intensive partnerships.” I’ll have more to say about that in a moment, but for now let me simply say that we’re incredibly excited about this work… and the opportunities ahead.

And I want to thank Greg Behr, who I had chance to meet with several times. Greg is the executive director of the Grabel Foundation and he – along with other members of the Fund for Excellence – have been strong supporters of the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ work on effective teaching.

I also want to acknowledge Saleem Ghubril, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise…

...and Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, who is doing amazing work to ensure that all of Pittsburgh’s students can fulfill their promise.

You and my boss Bill Gates have something in common.

Okay, perhaps not as much as you’d like.

What you have in common is the same looming problem: that our nation is not producing the kinds of students that you or the former CEO of Microsoft needs to hire.

Bill said it bluntly to our nation’s governors several years ago – and I’m quoting:

“America’s high schools are obsolete.

“By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and underfunded – though a case could be made for every one of those points.

“By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

“Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times.

“Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year.”

Bill said that five years ago, when the economy was strong.

That call is even more urgent this year. At a time when unemployment hovers near 10 percent, 1 million new jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math will open up… but only 200,000 new graduates will have the skills to fill them.

As a nation, we ask you to innovate, and you do.

We ask you to create jobs in the process, and you do.

And America’s end of the bargain is to produce the talented people who can not only fill those jobs, but who will thrive in those jobs – creating a virtuous cycle in which their success not only benefits them, but helps you create new innovations, and more jobs, and a stronger country in the process.

That virtuous cycle breaks down if you do your part to create the jobs… and then you need to apply for a bunch of H1B visas to fill them.

When that’s the case, our nation is not doing right by you, by our students, or by our future.

I know that many of you have made this challenge your challenge — whether its Bayer and PPG making sure their scientists visit classrooms throughout the area, or Hamill Manufacturing’s support of the BotsIQ competition, to get young people involved in machining and electronics.

Last fall, President Obama announced his Educate to Innovate initiative — to generate momentum for STEM reform. One of the key components of the initiative is the creation of a new organization called Change the Equation. Change the Equation will be formally introduced next month – and it’s goal is to mobilize many of the nation’s leading companies to do what many of you are already doing : to find new and exciting ways to support STEM education.

The Foundation is pleased to be partnering with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and leaders from corporate America, to support this initiative and drive the promise of STEM deeper into schools and classrooms. So look for the launch of Change the Equation in September, and then check out changetheequation.org to see how you can get involved.

But inspirational STEM experiences shouldn’t be the result of a company’s charitable act – they should be part of every child’s experience.

If the United States is going to continue to make great discoveries and lead great developments… if we’re going to grow our economy … then we need to understand where we’re falling short on cultivating young talent – and how to change course.

If you’ll pardon the pun: to get at the roots, we need to get a handle on the STEM.

The Gates Foundation and Education

At the Gates Foundation, we operate on the fundamental belief that everyone should have the opportunity to lead healthy and productive lives.

Around the world, this means we focus on health and agricultural productivity in the hopes of fighting disease and reducing extreme poverty.

In the United States, we invest in education. Because, as you understand better than anyone, education is the master key that opens every door to opportunity in our country.

Our focus is on ensuring that all students — regardless of skin color or zip code — graduate from high school ready to succeed in college, career and life.

So we built our college-ready program on several core initiatives;

  1. Ensuring that students are prepared for college and careers (learning)
  2. Empowering effective teachers and making sure that every student has a highly effective teacher in every class, every day (teaching)
  3. Promoting innovation in the classroom and developing next-generation school models (innovation) and,
  4. Establishing a culture of data and evidence to ensure that truly effective innovations for students and teachers are the ones we promote.
In each of those areas, we’re looking for the levers, the intervention points, within the education system where an investment can yield new insights and scalable solutions.

STEM Education: A Core Component of College Readiness

And after a lot of research, we have come to realize that an absolutely essential intervention point — one that intersects with all of these strategies — is STEM education.

Sitting here today, we’re just five miles away from Carnegie Science Center, arguably the most celebrated science museum in the state…. Just a 15 minute drive from Pitt, one of the largest research universities in the country…Just a fifteen dollar cab ride from Carnegie Mellon, one of the finest engineering schools in the world.

But for too many students in Pittsburgh Public Schools — these institutions are worlds away.

Our kids start out engaged with math and science. And it’s really no surprise – children naturally operate with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around them.

But then something happens. American math and science scores plummet as our students move from elementary school to middle school to high school. Science somehow changes from something that inspires and engages our students to something that oppresses and defeats them.

This doesn’t just mean that they shy away from STEM subjects. It doesn’t just mean that they become — as the physicist Brian Greene says, “bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible element of dimension.” It actually means that they may not make it to college at all, because competency in math and science are clear indicators of a student’s college and career readiness.

Consider this: A 2006 federal transcript study found that taking one course above Algebra 2 in high school can double the odds a student will earn a bachelor’s degree.

And so the inability to access and understand STEM subjects can really be the first step onto a slippery slope: No STEM, means no access to college, or ability to get a job in our knowledge economy.

No college or career… means no economic or social mobility.

And if there’s no economic or social mobility, then in a very fundamental sense, there’s no America.

So even if a student isn’t interested in a STEM career, all students need to be STEM capable.

Our nation is, in effect, limiting the futures of too many young people — particularly low-income students of color and girls — by failing to engage them in the sort of STEM learning that will empower them to succeed in college, hold rewarding jobs, and participate fully as citizens of the United States and the world.

Here’s one way to look at it: There are 35 million children enrolled in public schools today.

Four million of them start the 9th grade in a typical year.

Fewer than 3 million will graduate from high school 4 years later.

Half of them are college ready — so now we’re at 1.5 million starting college.

Only about 300,000 of them declare a STEM major… but fewer than 200,000 graduate with that STEM degree.

And out of those 200,000 graduating students who are STEM ready, only about 10 percent are black or Latino.

The truth is that our society treats math and science like optional subjects — as though only a select few students would ever be able to master them. Parents sometimes assume that if they aren’t good at math or science, their kids won’t be. Educators sometimes assume that if a child is struggling, math and science will be beyond them.

And this attitude shows in schools.

In a survey of Pennsylvania school districts, at least one school let more than 60 percent of students graduate without Algebra I, and at least one let 76 percent of its students graduate without biology.

Meanwhile, STEM jobs in Pennsylvania are growing at a rate of 12 percent – double that of other fields.

We would never accept a similar attitude of “not everyone needs to master it” if we were talking about reading.

And our country shouldn’t accept that attitude when it comes to the STEM subjects.

Again, kids need to be strong in the STEM subjects even if they aren’t going to pursue STEM careers — because quantitative reasoning has become so crucial to educational and professional success. The highest level of math reached in high school is a key indicator of momentum toward a bachelor's degree. The same study I cited before found that over 83 percent of those who took calculus earned a bachelor's degree compared with only 7 percent of those who took no more than Algebra 1.

An engaging science lesson shouldn’t be the reward of a field trip to the Carnegie Science Museum. It should be the daily promise of every science class in Pittsburgh.

That’s why President Obama committed $250 million to recruiting and training 100,000 new STEM teachers, and that’s why STEM is included in the federal grant program, Race to the Top.

And that’s why it is important to understand how to transform the STEM subjects so that they are no longer educational elements that are at best underemphasized and at worst bolted onto a child’s education. Let’s truly bring the power of the STEM subjects to bear in motivating and exciting students. Let’s use the power of a strong STEM education to dramatically increase the number of students who graduate high school prepared to get a good paying job.

Preparing Students for College and Career

Yes, we need to strengthen STEM educations to prepare students for college and career. But that’s not all we need to do. Today, many of our kids are doing what is expected of them, learning what they’re asked to learn, graduating, going on to college — only to discover that the standards they met in high school weren’t high enough to prepare them for college-level work.

So nearly a third of American students do not graduate from high school with their classmates… nearly a third graduate unprepared to do college level coursework...and only a third graduate prepared to succeed in college and career.

The first step in preparing students is to have clear, consistent, high standards in place which are evidence-based and allow teachers, students, and parents to know what is essential for a student to know at each grade level.

Right now, standards vary widely — in content and quality — from state to state and even within states across districts. They are often too low, too long, and too diffuse.

For example, Texas standards state that students should be able to compare and contrast Euclidean and NON-Euclidean geometry. Is non-Euclidean geometry going to help our young people become college and career ready? Wyoming standards state that students should be able to connect geometry with other mathematical topics. How? Why? The standard is so vague as to be meaningless.

Fortunately, state leaders from around the country decided that it was time to work with parents, teachers, and education experts to craft next generation standards.

The Common Core State Standards — English Language Arts, Mathematics and, soon, Science — are aligned with career and work expectations. They build upon the best of the current state standards. They’re informed by top-performing countries and our institutions of higher education, so that all students are prepared to succeed in an information economy. And they demand mastery of what is most essential — they don’t simply ask students to learn less and less about more and more.

As of today, thirty-six states and the District of Columbia — including Pennsylvania — have agreed to adopt these standards.

Clear, consistent standards help us determine what kids need to know — and help us measure whether they’ve learned it. .

Measures of Effective Teaching

But clear, high, consistent standards are just the beginning. Our students need great teachers to help them meet those standards. Because there one thing that matters more to student learning than anything else inside a school: teachers.

This is certainly true in STEM subjects — where inspiring teaching can spark a lifelong passion.

And Pittsburgh is leading the way on helping us learn what makes a teacher great… and how we can help more teachers become great.

Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school.

Imagine you grouped all teachers in America by quartile, using whatever metrics their schools currently have in place. If students are taught by a bottom-quartile teacher for three years, they fall behind so significantly that catching up is nearly impossible.

But imagine you took all the students who currently has a bottom-quartile teacher and gave them a top-quartile teacher instead. You would close the entire achievement gap in America in just three years.

This is actually an inspiring statistic. Because it means that with great teachers, there’s no limit to what America’s students could achieve.

So we should learn from great teachers.

But how do we identify “great” in a meaningful way? And then, how do we help more teachers become great? We believe that our efforts need to be informed by fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement.

The foundation is supporting research to analyze teachers whose students are making big gains, identify what they do, and determine how to transfer those skills to others.

It’s part of a project called Measures of Effective Teaching. 3,000 teachers in seven school districts around the United States — including here in Pittsburgh — have volunteered to open their classrooms to visitors, to video cameras, to new assessments, to watching themselves teach, and talking about their practice.

The project teams will watch more than 26,000 videos, and they’ll drill down into classes that showed big student gains — not just on standardized tests, but on other measures of problem-solving knowledge — and try to map backwards to identify the most effective teaching practices. And they’ll also look for what doesn’t work.

We also want to take what we’re learning about individual classrooms and apply those lessons to whole schools and districts. That’s why we are investing $290 million in four different school districts as part of what we’re calling our “intensive partnerships.” Each of these districts is reforming the way teachers are recruited, rewarded, and retained.

One of these districts is Pittsburgh, which is creating new incentives to reward effective teachers, and to match those teachers with the students who need them most. In some schools, if students make better-than-expected gains in learning, their teachers earn additional pay. In one program, teachers will work as a team with a group of incoming ninth graders and stay with them for two years. If at the end of 10th grade the kids are on track for college, the whole team gets a bonus.

We believe that, with your help, Pittsburgh has the potential to be a “lighthouse” — a model for the ways in which school districts can empower effective teaching.

So just as you’ve worked to bring your professions and your passion for math and science into the schools here, I’d also ask for your support in focusing on — and calling for — effective teaching.

Innovation: New Methods of Instruction and Powering-Up Classroom Experiences

To truly strengthen STEM education, and place it at the center of an effort to increase college and career readiness, we need clear and consistent standards. We need effective teachers. But we also need innovation — in terms of instruction, and in terms of technology.

“Crayon Physics” is a great example of how we can use STEM to bring the latest tools to rethink how we teach old concepts. This interactive, free web-based game teaches kids Newton’s Laws of Motion by having them design a contraption that knocks a star off various platforms. It’s a simple, engaging, even artistic way of showing kids how science works instead of just telling them.

Examples like this are wonderful. But they’re also rare. To me, they make two things clear:

First, our schools have yet to fully embrace the fact that games can be important educational tools for inculcating the skills our students need – from constructing hypotheses, to evaluating risk, to making decisions.

Second, education simply hasn’t entered the information age. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Commerce ranked major industries according to their level of IT penetration – in other words, they asked which industries had caught up with new technology.

Education finished dead last.

For today’s students, that’s not just unacceptable. It’s incomprehensible. As anchors of the technology community, you understand this better than anyone. They are “digital natives.” They grew up texting, chatting, online, on Facebook. They spend their lives “powered up.”

But when they get to school, these same students have to “power down.” They have to turn off the devices and put away the technology that’s an essential part of their lives.

A successful STEM education allows students to power up again, and turn that energy and understanding into knowledge. Imagine if we could give even a percentage of the kids who are obsessed with text messaging the ability to pioneer new methods of communication… or give every child who loves playing video games the skills to create his or her own virtual world?

But we can’t expect our education system to teach technology if our education system doesn’t use technology.

Next-Generation Models and the Foundation’s Work

STEM can help us build next generation school models that reflect how today’s students interact with the world.

We’re excited by Carnegie Mellon and the Monterey Institute’s work to blend the best of learning science and technology to create, evaluate and continuously improve virtual learning environments for today’s students.

Another model is the STEM school, which might use a “hybrid” delivery, creating and teaching curriculum that combines traditional text with the latest technology.

STEM schools can be more “permeable,” encouraging students and teachers to interact with STEM resources outside of the classroom. They would find a lot more time to bring people like all of you into the classroom, to share your experience and help students answer that question every teacher gets: “When are we going to use this in the real world?”

A science teacher might be able to explain the biology of marine life to her class. But a marine biologist who comes into a STEM classroom can demonstrate how that knowledge is used to work with marine life. And that kind of hands-on learning could be the difference between a student choosing to pursue biology or not.

STEM schools have the power to bring science to life. And we all have the power to bring a STEM education to many more children.

Right now, our foundation is working with the Battelle Memorial Institute — an innovation R&D company — to help design and build STEM networks that get the K-12, business, and higher education communities to bring together each of their unique contributions and areas of expertise in service of a strong STEM education for all students. We all need to learn from — and leverage — each other’s work.

Call to Action

Thomas Edison — a man who I’m quite confident would be an advocate for STEM education today — once said that, “Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets planning.”

We are at a moment of opportunity — we have an administration that is focused on education reform. A renewed investment in STEM. A school district that has taken on the challenge.

So let me close where I began: Business leaders getting involved in STEM can really make a difference — not just by providing financial resources, but by tapping into core business competencies.

These skills can be brought to bear for students: In Cleveland, GE created an open enrollment school where engineers mentor students, and teachers are empowered to develop new course materials on themes of light, sustainability, and other topics.

Or for school systems themselves: Engineers at the Raytheon Company have developed an open-source tool for modeling the U.S. education system. The tool can demonstrate how interventions in the system, like having consistently high-performing math teachers — can significantly improve students’ outcomes.

Our students need your expertise, your experience, your knowledge — to drive the education reforms that are going to help enable them to enter the workforce in whatever field they choose.

The very skills that helped build such a successfully technology sector here in Pittsburgh can be applied to drive change in Pittsburgh’s public schools, as well.

This is a community blessed with incredible resources, ranging from the universities to the museums to the STEM industries of the last century — manufacturing and heavy industry — to the STEM industries of tomorrow, like IT and healthcare.

But the most important resource here in Pittsburgh is all of you. And by working together, all of you...all of us...can build a 21st century workforce of STEM professionals who are equipped to not only fulfill their own potential, but also to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.

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