Saturday, December 14, 2013

If You Want the Best for Your Kids, Stay Married!


This is what I like about information: you find out that what looks like a story about higher education turns out to be a story about marriage, divorce, and the effects on the children.  So, read this and see that getting a good job is only one reason to go to college.  The red italics are mine, not the author's.  And, it must be said, Mona Charen's article appeared in Townhall.com which appears to me to be a bit on the "conservative" side. 



President Barack Obama spoke about income inequality in a recent address but failed to mention one of the most significant contributors to rising inequality in America: the marriage gap. Jobs are changing, international competition has driven down wages, top executives are pulling down enormous salaries, but it is cultural patterns -- specifically personal decisions about cohabitation and marriage -- that are most responsible for deepening the divide between haves and have-nots in America. The contrast between the highly educated and the rest of the nation has become so pronounced that some are now calling marriage a "luxury good." If it becomes that -- if the collapse of marriage as a norm continues among the poor and the broad middle class -- much more than income inequality will result. We will institutionalize a productivity deficit, a healthy community deficit, a schooling deficit and a happiness deficit.

Marriage is decaying very fast. As recently as the 1980s, only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers (those with a high school diploma and perhaps some college) were born outside of marriage, according to research from the National Marriage Project. Today, it is 44 percent. Even more disturbing are the recent data showing that 53 percent of babies born to women under age 30 are nonmarital. Children of moderately educated parents are beginning to experience family dissolution, instability and pathology at rates more closely resembling the poor than the upper-middle class.

If you graduate from college, you are likely to choose a family life similar, if not quite identical, to the 1950s ideal. If you are a high school dropout, you are unlikely to marry at all. If you have a high school diploma or some college, your family life in many cases is going to be chaotic, featuring cohabitation, short marriages and high rates of instability. W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project reports that "cohabiting couples have a much higher breakup rate than do married couples, a lower level of household income, and a higher level of child abuse and domestic violence." Unlike trust funds, marriage is available to everyone and confers the same benefits on the rich and poor. There is no substitute for two married parents who care for each other in sickness, spell each other in child and elder care, watch the kids while a spouse takes night classes and contribute to thriving communities. In-laws give loans, jobs and other support they are unlikely to extend to live-in "significant others. In "Coming Apart," Charles Murray pleaded with the educated upper-middle and upper classes to "preach what you practice." But, so far at least, very few are willing to. Carolyn Hax, for example, a usually sensible advice columnist, responded to a young lady wondering whether to move in with her boyfriend by sneering, "Your mother sounds like a stealth subscriber to the why-buy-the-cow mentality, which is nothing but a bad deal for women . . . Yuck."

Actually, cohabitation is a very bad deal for all concerned -- especially women and children. The children of cohabiting couples do worse than those living with a single mother if the boyfriend is not the biological father of the children. The breakup rate among unmarried cohabiting couples is much higher than among married couples, with all that entails for disruption, poverty and pathology.
Fear of divorce is part of the reason many young couples move in together. (The divorce rate is actually lower than people imagine -- only about 30 percent of first marriages end in divorce.)

In a 2001 survey, two-thirds of respondents approved of living together before marriage. Even then, data suggested that couples who cohabited before marriage were more likely to divorce than those who went straight to the altar, but it wasn't clear if this was a result of selection bias (i.e., those more committed to marriage as an institution would be less likely to live together first). Newer research is showing that both men and women have lower standards for a live-in than for a spouse. The data also show, as Wilcox notes, that "children living with their own biological cohabiting parents tend to do almost as poorly as children living in a cohabiting stepfamily, as well as children living in a single-parent family. And the association between both types of cohabitation and negative child outcomes persists even after controlling for a range of socioeconomic factors."

Men cohabit with less expectation of permanence than women do. Many couples not destined for marriage waste good years in impermanent arrangements, often becoming parents. And, by the way, women do far more housework than men in cohabiting relationships.

Without the basics of security and permanence in their personal lives, people find it much more difficult to rise out of poverty or maintain middle class lifestyles. They are also far less happy. If you care about the poor and the middle class, you ought to worry about marriage.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Should Health Insurance Cover Contraception?

Ever since I worked at the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, I have been interested in "the law."  It is endlessly fascinating how, as Linda Greenhouse shows in the following op-ed piece, the law seems to be about one thing, but is actually about something else entirely.  So often, though, this fact gets lost in the media.  For example, in their book, Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner showed how Roe v Wade lowered the crime rate 20 years later.  Read that book, it will amaze you.  In Greenhouse's article, the red italics are mine, not hers.









CONTRIBUTING OP-ED WRITER

Doesn’t Eat, Doesn’t Pray and Doesn’t Love

By LINDA GREENHOUSE
Published: November 27, 2013 in the NY Times 

The question of whether for-profit companies can claim a religious identity, one that exempts them from obeying a generally applicable law, is fully worthy of the attention the Supreme Court is about to give it. But to the extent that much of the commentary about the challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception-coverage insurance mandate frames the issue as a debate about the rights of corporations – as a next step beyond Citizens United’s expansion of corporate free speech – I think it misses the point. What really makes these cases so rich, and the reason the court’s intervention will dramatically raise the temperature of the current term, lies elsewhere.

The religious-based challenges that have flooded the federal courts from coast to coast – more than 70 of them, of which the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear two – aren’t about the day-in, day-out stuff of jurisprudence under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause: Sabbath observance, employment rights, tax exemptions. They are about sex.

As such, the cases open a new front in an old war. I don’t mean the overblown “war on religion” that some Catholic leaders have accused the Obama administration of waging. Nor do I mean the “war on women” that was such an effective charge last year against a bevy of egregiously foot-in-mouth Republican politicians.

I mean that this is the culture war redux – a war not on religion or on women but on modernity.

All culture wars are that, of course: the old culture in a goal-line stance against a new way of organizing society, a new culture struggling to be born. Usually, that’s pretty obvious. This time, somehow, it seems less so, maybe because the battle is being fought in the complex language of law, namely a 20-year-old law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This tendentiously named statute, aimed at overturning a 1990 Supreme Court decision that cast a skeptical eye on claims to religious exemptions from ordinary laws, provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the burden serves a “compelling” government interest and is the “least restrictive means” of doing so.

What’s a substantial burden? What governmental interest is sufficiently compelling? And with particular respect to the two new Supreme Court cases, is a for-profit corporation a “person” that can engage in religious exercise? The lower courts are divided, making it all but inevitable that the Supreme Court would step in. (One of the cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., raises only the statutory questions. The other, Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, presents the First Amendment issue as well; the company’s Mennonite owners, who employ nearly 1,000 people in their cabinet-making business, argued unsuccessfully in the lower court that the contraceptive coverage mandate violates both their own and their corporation’s right to the free exercise of religion.)

It’s of course a total coincidence that the Supreme Court granted these cases on the same day that The Times published a special section on the changing American family.

But Natalie Angier’s fascinating statistical and narrative portraits of the contemporary American household – declining birth rates; even more sharply declining marriage rates; 41 percent of babies born to unmarried parents, a fourfold increase since 1970 – offer some context for the sense of dislocation and alienation that, as much as anything else, seems to be driving the resistance to making contraception coverage, without a co-pay, a required part of employer-provided health insurance.

The religiously committed owners of the companies whose cases the court will decide – Hobby Lobby employs 13,000 people in its 500-store chain – say they object not to all birth control but only to the methods they believe act after fertilization to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting and continuing to develop. This belief is incorrect, as a brief filed by a coalition of leading medical authorities demonstrates; although there was once some confusion on this point, the disputed hormonal methods are now understood to prevent fertilization from occurring in the first place. European medical authorities recently reached the same conclusion and have changed the label on an emergency contraception pill to say it “cannot stop a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb.”

There is something deeper going on in these cases than a dispute over the line that separates a contraceptive from an “abortifacient.” What drives the anger about this regulation is that, as the opponents see it, the government is putting its thumb on the scale in favor of birth control, of sex without consequences. In a revealing article published earlier this year in the Villanova Law Review, Helen Alvaré, a law professor and longtime adviser to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, describes the contraception mandate as the culmination of what she calls the “contraceptive project.”

Professor Alvaré writes: “The churches opposing the mandate hold, and teach women and men to maintain, an understanding of the sacredness of sexual intercourse, and its intrinsic connection with the procreating of new, vulnerable human life.” The government policy of covering contraception, she says, would have the effect in law of characterizing these teachings “as violations of women’s freedom and equality.”

As Professor Alvaré surely knows, nearly all Catholic women use birth control at some time during their reproductive lives and they have abortions at the same rate as other American women. And her article acknowledges a recent and widely reported study that found that the abortion rate dropped by as much as two-thirds among women in St. Louis, most of them poor, who volunteered for a two-year project in which they received free birth control; the women were able to choose the highly reliable long-lasting contraceptives that are priced out of reach for many women who will now be able to receive them under the Affordable Care Act.

To the extent that the “contraceptive project” changes anything on the American reproductive landscape, it will be to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy and abortion. The objection, then, has to be not to the mandate’s actual impact but to its expressive nature, its implicit endorsement of a value system that says it’s perfectly O.K. to have sex without the goal of making a baby. While most Americans surely share this view, given the personal choices they make in their own lives, many nonetheless find it uncomfortable to acknowledge.

From the Obama administration’s point of view, of course, the contraception mandate is about health care. The policy was based on a report by the Institute of Medicine that listed contraception as one of the “preventive services,” along with immunizations and cholesterol and diabetes screening, among dozens of other services, that a comprehensive health insurance policy should provide.

The administration has framed this aspect of the Affordable Care Act as the implementation of evidence-based medicine, which of course it is and should be. But there’s a missing piece. One of the failures of the Affordable Care Act saga, it seems to me, has been the president’s unwillingness or inability to present universal health care as a moral issue, a moral right in a civilized society. Thus the administration meets the moral claims of its opponents in technocratic mode, one hand tied behind its back.

There’s a powerful argument to be made, both in policy and law, that an employer of any faith or no faith who chooses to enter the secular marketplace can’t pick and choose which rules to follow. As some of the federal judges who have rejected the religious claims in these cases have pointed out, no employer would have the right to tell employees that they can’t use their wages to obtain contraceptives, abortions or any other legal product or service. By paying employees as the law requires, neither a corporation nor its owner is endorsing the employees’ choice of what to spend their money on – no more than a local government endorses a parent’s choice to use a taxpayer-funded voucher for religious-school tuition. The Supreme Court for decades has embraced the notion that an intervening private choice of this sort, even when a government program is clearly designed to channel public money to religious institutions, avoids what would otherwise be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

So now, once again, the court will have the last word. A ruling against the contraception mandate won’t kill the Affordable Care Act – much as some justices might fervently desire that result. If the court grants the exemption the companies seek, its decision will most likely come packaged as an exercise in statutory interpretation. Only the old culture warrior, Antonin Scalia, can be counted on to acknowledge the deeper issues in play. But those issues will be there nonetheless, and that’s what makes these cases so compelling.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Do I Need a Gun?





Do I need a gun?  Do you?  I don't live in a dangerous neighborhood, but I do have two little children that are in my home about 9 hours a day.  I don't hunt.  I don't enjoy target shooting as a hobby.  I am not afraid that the government is going to come take all our guns (if we have them) and round us all up and put us in camps.  And I have seen "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."  I know what 2 against 300 looks like - and it's not pretty.  I don't need a gun. 

I don't think Adam Lanza's mother needed those guns she had in her house.  If she was an avid target shooter, she could have stored the guns outside her home.  If she had not had those guns, she might still be alive and perhaps all those who died in Newtown a year ago might still be with us.  And Adam might have been able to get the help he most desperately needed.

Who Needs a Gun?
By GARY GUTTING
writing for The Stone
Published by the NY Times, Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.

In September, Navy Yard; in November, a racially fraught shooting in Michigan and a proposed “stand-your-ground law” in Ohio; now the first anniversary of the Newtown massacre — there’s no avoiding the brutal reality of guns in America. Once again, we feel the need to say something, but we know the old arguments will get us nowhere. What’s the point of another impassioned plea or a new subtlety of constitutional law or further complex analyses of statistical data?

Even when a gun makes sense in principle as a means of self-defense, it may do more harm than good.
Our discussions typically start from the right to own a gun, go on to ask how, if at all, that right should be limited, and wind up with intractable disputes about the balance between the right and the harm that can come from exercising it. I suggest that we could make more progress if each of us asked a more direct and personal question: Should I own a gun?

A gun is a tool, and we choose tools based on their function. The primary function of a gun is to kill or injure people or animals. In the case of people, the only reason I might have to shoot them — or threaten to do so — is that they are immediately threatening serious harm. So a first question about owning a gun is whether I’m likely to be in a position to need one to protect human life. A closely related question is whether, if I were in such a position, the gun would be available and I would be able to use it effectively.

Unless you live in (or frequent) dangerous neighborhoods or have family or friends likely to threaten you, it’s very unlikely that you’ll need a gun for self-defense. Further, counterbalancing any such need is the fact that guns are dangerous. If I have one loaded and readily accessible in an emergency (and what good is it if I don’t?), then there’s a non-negligible chance that it will lead to great harm. A gun at hand can easily push a family quarrel, a wave of depression or a child’s curiosity in a fatal direction.

Even when a gun makes sense in principle as a means of self-defense, it may do more harm than good if I’m not trained to use it well. I may panic and shoot a family member coming home late, fumble around and allow an unarmed burglar to take my gun, have a cleaning or loading accident. The N.R.A. rightly sets high standards for gun safety. If those unable or unwilling to meet these standards gave up their guns, there might well be a lot fewer gun owners.

Guns do have uses other than defense against attackers. There may, for example, still be a few people who actually need to hunt to feed their families. But most hunting now is recreational and does not require keeping weapons at home. Hunters and their families would be much safer if the guns and ammunition were securely stored away from their homes and available only to those with licenses during the appropriate season. Target shooting, likewise, does not require keeping guns at home.

RELATED
More From The Stone
Read previous contributions to this series.

Finally, there’s the idea that citizens need guns so they can, if need be, oppose the force of a repressive government. Those who think there are current (or likely future) government actions in this country that would require armed resistance are living a paranoid fantasy. The idea that armed American citizens could stand up to our military is beyond fantasy.

Once we balance the potential harms and goods, most of us — including many current gun owners — don’t have a good reason to keep guns in their homes. This conclusion follows quite apart from whether we have a right to own guns or what restrictions should be put on this right. Also, the conclusion derives from what makes sense for each of us as individuals and so doesn’t require support from contested interpretations of statistical data.

I entirely realize that this line of thought will not convince the most impassioned gun supporters, who see owning guns as fundamental to their way of life. But about 70 million Americans own guns and only about four million belong to the N.R.A., which must include a large number of the most impassioned. So there’s reason to think that many gun owners would be open to reconsidering the dangers their weapons pose. Also, almost 30 percent of gun owners don’t think that guns make a household safer, and only 48 percent cite protection (rather than hunting, target shooting, etc.) as their main reason for having a gun.

It’s one thing to be horrified at gun violence. It’s something else to see it as a meaningful threat to your own existence. Our periodic shock at mass shootings and gang wars has little effect on our gun culture because most people don’t see guns as a particular threat to them. This is why opposition to gun violence has lacked the intense personal commitment of those who see guns as essential to their safety — or even their self-identity.

I’m not suggesting that opponents of gun violence abandon political action. We need to make it harder to buy guns (through background checks, waiting periods, etc.) both for those with criminal intentions and for law-abiding citizens who have no real need. But on the most basic level, much of our deadly violence occurs because we so often have guns readily available. Their mere presence makes suicide, domestic violence and accidents more likely. The fewer people with guns at hand, the less gun violence.

It’s easier to get people to see that they don’t want something than that they don’t have a right to it. Focusing on the need rather than the right to own a gun, many may well conclude that for them a gun is more a danger than a protection. Those fewer guns will make for a safer country.

We Need A Different Kind of Affirmative Action - One to Get Girls and Minorities into Math and Engineering


When I was in second grade, my teacher told my mother that I would never be any good at math.  She said I could eventually get it, but that it took me longer than the other children.  And I believed her.  Because I thought I couldn't do math, I also assumed I couldn't do science.  I avoided all those courses in high school and my first year of college.  Years and years later, I found myself in Arizona and living near a community college.  I decided to earn at least an Associate's degree, but in order to do it, I would have to take a science class.  I signed up for a summer class in Biology.  What do you think happened? I loved it!  I couldn't wait to go to class every day.  If only, if only, that second grade teacher had not set a course for me in the humanities, I could easily imagine that I might have had a successful career in science, maybe even an advanced degree.  What I learned from my experience is that anyone can master math and science if they believe they can, and if they have inspiring teachers.  That means women and minorities, too.

Editorial from the NY Times, December 10, 2013

A big reason America is falling behind other countries in science and math is that we have effectively written off a huge chunk of our population as uninterested in those fields or incapable of succeeding in them.



Women make up nearly half the work force but have just 26 percent of science, technology, engineering or math jobs, according to the Census Bureau. Blacks make up 11 percent of the workforce but just 6 percent of such jobs and Hispanics make up nearly 15 percent of the work force but hold 7 percent of those positions. There is no question that women and minorities have made progress in science and math in the last several decades, but their gains have been slow and halting. And in the fast-growing field of computer science, women’s representation has actually declined in the last 20 years, while minorities have made relatively small gains.

These jobs come with above-average pay and offer workers a wide choice of professions. Opening them to women and minorities would help reduce corrosive income inequality between whites and other groups, and would narrow the gender gap in wages. Improving the representation of women and minorities would also enrich American scientific research and development, because they will add a different perspective to workplaces currently dominated by white and Asian men.
Moreover, the people who do well in these professions will be much more likely to lead the industry in the future and make decisions that affect thousands of workers and customers. Many technology companies, including Twitter until recently, have no women on their board of directors, and few blacks and Hispanics in senior management roles, in part because too few girls and minorities are becoming programmers and engineers.

The biggest career disadvantage faced by many lower-income blacks and Hispanics is their limited access to a good education. Compared with upper-income Americans, a greater percentage are raised by parents who have not gone to college or graduated from high school, and more grow up with single parents who do not have the time or resources to enrich their children’s education. Moreover, a smaller percentage of minority children attend enriching prekindergarten programs, which studies have shown aids the development of cognitive and analytical skills that are needed to do well in science and math. A recent study showed that nearly half of Hispanic 4-year-olds are not enrolled in any preschool classes. While more than 60 percent of black 4-year-olds are enrolled, most of them are in programs of low or mediocre quality.

Schools that serve minority and lower-income neighborhoods tend to employ teachers with fewer years of experience and less specialized training in math and science than schools in white and upper-income neighborhoods, according to a 2012 National Science Foundation report. By contrast, developed nations like Germany, South Korea and Belgium tend to devote more resources like teachers to schools that serve their most disadvantaged students than on schools that serve advantaged children, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Entrenched stereotypes about who does well in science and math also work against minorities in classrooms. Too many teachers give up easily on them simply because they are not expected to do as well as white students. Despite those challenges, many minorities still enroll in science and math programs in college but fewer of them earn a degree in those programs in five years — 22.1 percent for Hispanics and 18.4 percent for blacks — than whites (33 percent) and Asians (42 percent), according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. Many of those who leave are simply ill-prepared for the rigors of college-level math and science. Others feel socially unwelcome because they make up a tiny minority in largely white and Asian science and engineering departments. They also have far fewer role models to look up to.

Unlike minority children, girls as a whole do about as well as or better than boys asmeasured by their high school grade point averages in science and math. And in the last several decades, women have made great gains in fields like biology, chemistry, psychology and sociology; they now earn a majority of undergraduate degrees and a growing proportion of advanced degrees in life sciences.

But women have made far fewer gains in physical sciences and more math-intensive fields. When making choices about their majors and careers, many young women rule out engineering and computer science partly because they are uninterested, feel ill-prepared for them or because society identifies these domains as male. Women who do earn degrees in these fields leave those professions at much higher rates than men. And the women who graduate with degrees in engineering and computer science are less likely to be employed than men.

In many cases, women seem to have internalized society’s belief that they are incapable of mastering these fields as well as men. Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford, and other psychologists have found that female students who are made to believe that math ability is innate have lower scores and are less likely to study math than girls who believe that math skills can be acquired through hard work. Another study showed that female college students got more questions right on math tests when they were told beforehand that “college students are good at math” than when they were told “women are bad at math,” which suggests stereotypes undermine women’s performance.

These gaps could be reduced if every child had access to free public preschools. Earlier this year, President Obama proposed making high-quality preschools available to 4-year-old children of families with incomes of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, at a 10-year cost of $75 billion. Studies have shown that every $1 invested in preschools saves society $7 in the future through lower spending on remedial education, higher productivity and less crime.

The country should also make sure that the schools that primarily serve minorities have the resources and support they need to hire qualified teachers so their students are not at a disadvantage relative to children in more affluent areas. States will need to take the lead to make this happen, but the federal government can also assist through grants and other support.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, which operates 141 public charter schools around the country, has effectively used smaller class sizes, longer school days and summer school to help lagging minority students improve test scores in math, reading and science. Teachers at KIPP schools maintain high expectations of all students, working intensively one-on-one with children until they comprehend every important concept. Though the program has been criticized for its dropout rates and admissions policies, one recent independentstudy of KIPP’s approach showed that middle school students who spent three years in its schools had math scores that on average put them 11 months ahead of where they would have been had they not joined the school; they were 14 months ahead in science achievement.

Teachers also need to make science and math education much more practical and hands-on. Girls have shown much more engagement in subjects when they learn the connection between what they are studying and real-world problems. That may partly explain why so many talented girls prefer to go into life sciences, where that link has generally been more apparent.

Groups like the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering have been showingminorities and girls that they can imagine themselves as scientists or engineers, providing role models to speak to middle school students and helping high schools set up engineering academies. A five-year program funded by the National Science Foundation at Bowie State University, a historically black university in Maryland, provides training and mentorship to high school science and math teachers and a summer science academy to 10th graders.

For both women and minorities, academic and social support is critical. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has programs for minorities and women that provide students with scholarships, mentorship, internships and involvement in cutting-edge research. Students enrolled in its programs are much more likely to graduate than other comparable students.

More than half of the American population will be made up of minorities in 2043. And the number of women who are the primary or sole earner in their families is growing. Those trends make it imperative that one of the most dynamic sectors of our economy no longer remain a male and largely white and Asian domain.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Who Says Math is Boring?

I was, apparently, the parent of a rather unusual daughter.  When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she replied in all seriousness: "I want to sit in a room and do math problems all day long." This is a true story.  She went on to major in biochemistry and was awarded a Ph.D. from Rutgers University.  This story is not for parents of girls like mine.  But it is an issue that all parents need to be talking to their school principal about.  We can't afford to have Americans serving Starbucks to the Chinese and Indian engineers, computer programmers, and physicists.


American students are bored by math, science and engineering. They buy smartphones and tablets by the millions but don’t pursue the skills necessary to build them. Engineers and physicists are often portrayed as clueless geeks on television, and despite the high pay and the importance of such jobs to the country’s future, the vast majority of high school graduates don’t want to go after them.  This link is for the video on the NY Times web site.

Math Doesn't Have to Be Boring

Nearly 90 percent of high school graduates say they’re not interested in a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering or math, known collectively as STEM, according to a survey of more than a million students who take the ACT test. The number of students who want to pursue engineering or computer science jobs is actually falling, precipitously, at just the moment when the need for those workers is soaring. (Within five years, there will be 2.4 million STEM job openings.)

One of the biggest reasons for that lack of interest is that students have been turned off to the subjects as they move from kindergarten to high school. Many are being taught by teachers who have no particular expertise in the subjects. They are following outdated curriculums and textbooks. They become convinced they’re “no good at math,” that math and science are only for nerds, and fall behind.

That’s because the American system of teaching these subjects is broken. For all the reform campaigns over the years, most schools continue to teach math and science in an off-putting way that appeals only to the most fervent students. The mathematical sequence has changed little since the Sputnik era: arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and, for only 17 percent of students, calculus. Science is generally limited to the familiar trinity of biology, chemistry, physics and, occasionally, earth science.

These pathways, as one report from the National Academy of Education put it, assume that high school students will continue to study science and math in college. But fewer than 13 percent do, usually the most well-prepared and persistent students, who often come from families where encouragement and enrichment are fundamental. The system is alienating and is leaving behind millions of other students, almost all of whom could benefit from real-world problem solving rather than traditional drills.
Only 11 percent of the jobs in the STEM fields require high-level math, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. But the rest still require skills in critical thinking that most high school students aren’t getting in the long march to calculus.

Finding ways to make math and science exciting for students who are in the middle of the pack could have a profound effect on their futures, providing them with the skills that will help them get technical jobs in the fields of food science, computer networking or medicine. It would entice many students who are insecure in their own abilities into advanced careers. But it is going to require a fundamentally different approach to teaching these subjects from childhood through high school. Here are a few of the many possible ideas to begin that change.

A More Flexible Curriculum

American students need vastly improved skills in math and science — they ranked 30th among students in 65 nations in math — but they do not all have to be trained to be mathematicians or scientists. While all students need a strong grasp of the fundamentals of critical thinking and problem solving, including algebra and geometry, they should be offered a greater choice between applied skills and the more typical abstract courses.

This is not an endorsement of tracking, the old practice of shunting some students into vocational classes while others are prepped for college. Every graduate should be ready for college (whether for a two- or four-year degree) but should also be exposed to the variety of skills that will be demanded as the country continues its shift to a post-industrial economy. As a study by the Georgetown center notes, very few high schools offer career or technical education; any deviation from a classical math education is viewed with suspicion.

Research has shown that the right mix of career and technical education can reduce dropout rates, and the courses offered don’t have to be from the old “industrial arts” ghettos. They should be taught at a challenging level and make students aware of careers that are now being ignored. Take engineering, for example, a field that pays well and needs ever more workers. Most high school students say they have no interest in the subject. That’s largely because few of them ever encounter it: Only 3 percent of graduateshave taken an engineering course. Only 19 percent of students have taken a computer science course, mostly at the advanced placement level.

The Common Core math standards now being adopted by most states are an important effort to raise learning standards, particularly in primary and middle school, when many students begin to fall behind. They encourage the use of technology and applied thinking, moving students away from rote memorization. At the high school level, they would introduce all students to useful concepts like real-world modeling. But the standards also assume that all high school students should pursue a high-level math track, studying quadratic equations, transformational geometry and logarithms. The standards need more flexibility to ensure that they do not stand in the way of nontraditional but effective ways to learn, including career-oriented study.

Very Early Exposure to Numbers

Only 18 percent of American adults can calculate how much a carpet will cost if they know the size of the room and the per-yard price of the carpet, according to a federal survey. One in five American adults lack the basic math skills expected of eighth graders, making them unfit for many newly created jobs. In many cases, that’s because they weren’t exposed to numbers at an early age.

A new study, by researchers at the University of Missouri, showed that the most important factor that predicted math success in middle school and upward was an understanding of what numbers are before entering the first grade. Having “number system knowledge” in kindergarten or earlier — grasping that a numeral represents a quantity, and understanding the relationships among numbers — was a more important factor in math success by seventh grade than intelligence, race or income.

Children of all backgrounds can build a good foundation in math with early exposure to numbers, which should be required in all preschool classes. But less than half of 4-year-olds are enrolled in full-day pre-K programs, and only 70 percent of kindergartners go all day. Although preschool enrollment has increased in recent years, it is still not a high priority in many states and cities, as shown by the cold reception to expansion proposals by President Obama and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio of New York.

Better Teacher Preparation

The most effective teachers have broad knowledge of their subjects. Too many lack that preparation. More than half of the 6.7 million students studying physical sciences — chemistry, physics and earth science — are learning from teachers who did not major in those subjects. Only 64 percent of those teachers are certified. The number is better for math teachers, as 78 percent are certified, but that still leaves three million math students being taught by uncertified teachers. The problem is significantly worse in low-income communities and in middle schools.

Some districts give additional instruction to science and math teachers, or team new teachers with more experienced colleagues. But the most important effort is the national campaign to add 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021. The Carnegie Corporation has led a coalition of businesses, universities and other institutions to make it happen at the ground level. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, has pledged to prepare 130 certified science teachers by 2015. The University of Chicago will train 500 new teachers for Chicago’s public schools over five years. The campaign now has commitments for more than 37,000 new teachers, but it still has far to go.

Experience in the Real World

A growing number of schools are helping students embrace STEM courses by linking them to potential employers and careers, taking math and science out of textbooks and into their lives. The high school in Brooklyn known as P-Tech, which President Obama recently visited, is a collaboration of the New York City public school system and the City University of New York with IBM. It prepares students for jobs like manufacturing technician and software specialist. Students work with IBM mentors and are encouraged to earn both a diploma and an associate degree after a combined six years in high school and college.Ten more such schools are planned around the state, and last month President Obama announced a promising new grant program to encourage dozens more high schools to offer job-oriented STEM education.

In Seattle, Raisbeck Aviation High School is working with Boeing and other aerospace firms to mentor students in engineering and robotics. Many schools are teaming with software companies to teach programming, including two schools that are very popular in New York City. Though many of these efforts remain untested, they center around a practical and achievable goal: getting students excited about science and mathematics, the first step to improving their performance and helping them discover a career.