The limitations of elected and appointed officials in addressing public education issues appear in a recent Las Cruces Sun-News guest column “Touch a scientist and you touch a child” (22 Sep) by New Mexico Representative Bill McCamley, District 33. McCamley is one smart fellow, well educated in political science, and widely experienced in public offices. To give him that credit is not to give him a pass on his views about government’s role in public education, especially in relationship to business; or the nature and needs of public education and of students.
McCamley begins with a recent Intel announcement: “For the third time in five years, they [sic] will fail to meet an agreement to hire at least 60 percent of new employees from New Mexico because they [sic] cannot find enough with science and engineering skills.” He claims, “we are producing the same amount of engineers that we were 20 years ago, despite many more people attending college.” He is neither the first nor one of a few to fret about small numbers of graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A National Science Foundation study 30 years ago addressed continuing shortages of college graduates, especially women and minorities, in STEM-related fields.
McCamley’s restatement of a serious problem does not ensure his recommendations as sensible solutions. His approach and his proposals, typical of many by state and local officials and well-intended, cannot promote state or business interests. For they are ill-conceived, undesirable as a matter of public policy, detrimental to public education, and contrary to students’ best interests.
McCamley’s analogy reveals his misconception of education. “Producing the same amount of engineers” likens K-12 education to a manufacturing process, with graduates as “products”—metaphors common to politicians and education officials. The analogy is pernicious. It regards students as intractable or malleable recipients of information and skills drilled or pounded into them by teachers on the assembly line of the sequence of grades. It reduces them, individuals who count (and can be counted, so the correct word is “number”) to objects much like one another in a mass (“amount”), like lumps of coal or pieces of manure in a pile, and measured by volume or weight. No one should think of schools as factories or students products, for dehumanizing analogies and terms lead to decisions influenced by them.
Like other politicians, McCamley identifies a problem and implies a solution which does nothing to accomplish his purpose. One problem is a “Lack of qualified teachers: In New Mexico, only about a third of public science and math teachers have [sic] a certification to teach in those [STEM] areas”; the implied solution is certification of all middle and high school teachers. The fact is right, the problem is real, his solution is presently irrelevant. He knows that, in one of the worst state public education systems in the country, only half of its students achieve proficiency in reading and mathematics in both 4th and 8th grades. By the time they arrive in middle and high school, no more than half approximate the levels of academic competence required in STEM-related subjects, and many tested as proficient by low state standards are not strong, and lack confidence in, these subjects. (Worse, students not proficient in mathematics are not necessarily the same students not proficient in reading, so a smaller percentage is fully prepared for STEM-related subjects.) McCamley does not consider the obvious but critical implication: until the teaching of reading and mathematics greatly improves in the K-4 grades, the numbers of students pursuing studies in STEM-related subjects in middle and high school, and college, will remain small, with the same results which he deplores. Certifying all science teachers will make little difference.
Among other proposed remedies, McCamley suggests that “Business leaders requiring these [STEM] students can invest more time and money into [sic] K-12 programs…that make science fun and emphasize its importance when getting a job [sic].” His advice is unwise in many ways.
It assumes that, if school studies cannot, business programs can, make science “fun.” The assumption is absurd; if only because STEM subjects have right and wrong answers, study in them clearly demands diligence and determination (no less appropriate to, but rarely expected, in English and history), with little room for error. I spent my K-12 years taking every science and mathematics subject available, succeeded in them, and went to Cornell in engineering physics. I know that the “fun” of such subjects is the gratification of achievement after long, hard work. I also know that even good students can find them difficult and frustrating, often anything but “fun.” Given the demands of STEM-related subjects, making them both “fun” and sufficiently educational is problematic.
It also assumes that success in STEM-related subjects ensures interest in STEM-related careers. Most people cannot imagine that even long-term success does not ensure lasting interest. As I matured, I lost vocational interest in science and mathematics—I still read articles or books in these fields—and switched to philosophy and English, which, with history, had increasingly interested me. Achieving success in STEM-related subjects does not necessarily sustain interest in them or assure STEM-related career choices.
McCamley’s suggestion that science is important to getting a job is a little silly. It is important only if a student wants a job in science, seldom if a student wants to get a job in business, journalism, or law enforcement. Because of my experience, I wish others to have an education good and balanced enough so that, as they mature, they can pursue their interests, not McCamley’s or those of business, for which he advocates.
The major failing of McCamley’s position is its big-government approach to using education to serve government and business interests by better serving STEM than serving non-STEM students. McCamley believes that a proper role for government is to use its legislative authority and budgetary power to invest more in some subjects than in others. He writes, “Government officials like myself can make science and math education a priority when choosing how to allocated educational resources.” However, for any given education budget, higher priorities and allocations for science and math mean lower priorities and allocations not only for English, history, art, and music, but also for many vocational subjects.
Thus, McCamley’s priorities would eliminate equal educational opportunity for all. They would bias the allocation of resources so that students in some subjects would have more educational advantages than would students in other subjects. His tacit rationale is that, because of their needs, government and business value students interested in physics or algebra more highly than they value students interested in photography or English. Because his biases favor some students and subjects over others, and because disparate cultural and socio-economic factors influence student course selection, his priorities likely lead to gender, racial, and ethnic discrimination in educational opportunity.
McCamley is myopic on the longer-term consequences of his priorities. By weakening non-STEM courses and not considering anything beyond the first job in a STEM-based career, he does not consider that professional growth is often toward marketing or management, including decision-making, possibly in large corporations or government agencies. My experience as a consultant to both is that people narrowly educated in STEM fields are poorly prepared to address important economic, political, social, or military issues. Even STEM students need what everyone once called and students once received: a well-rounded education.
Finally, McCamley supports the government’s efforts to practice social engineering, to pick winners and losers, and to influence or manipulate student decisions about their lives and livelihoods. Ultimately, he opposes not only equal educational opportunity, but also student self-determination. He does not imagine—he may not care—what students might think and how they might respond to an educational system shaped to serve state and business interests, not dedicated to serve theirs. After being processed as a commodity on a production line for 13 years to advance interests not their own, many students will reach one of three conclusions. One, education is not for them. Or, two, STEM subjects are not for them. Or, three, non-STEM subjects, interest in which the school-as-factory assembly line has not destroyed, may be “fun,” but students will pay the price of a shabbier education if they take them.
Bottom line for business-oriented politicians like McCamley: many constituents, and most of those who are parents, do not want government to use public education for social engineering. They want every student to have equal educational opportunity, full freedom to decide what courses and careers to follow, and a quality education by a subject-competent and committed teacher in every course. Those should be McCamley’s priorities. If not, his constituents should revise theirs.