Why more students don’t study #STEM

Lonnie Palmer
Lonnie Palmer, author of the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform,” was a math and science teacher, science department chairman, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent in urban, suburban and rural schools.

An excerpt from Lonnie Palmer’s solutions-based book “The Lesson Plan”

by Lonnie Palmer

While the football conflict was playing out another conflict was developing at Rosemont High School.

Jessie Thomas’ eldest son, Ted, a sixth grader, was a computer, math and science wizard who loved to blow things up and planned on pursuing a career designing computer video games.

He was part of a small select group of students  chosen to take accelerated math and science in seventh grade. They could then take ninth grade Regents Algebra and Regents Biology in eighth grade so that later in high school they had the time and preparation to take Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and AP Biology or AP Chemistry for potential college credit as seniors.

Among Jessie’s contacts and friends was Lois Schafer, teacher for all the honors and Advanced Placement Calculus math classes at Rosemont High School. Lois and Jessie arranged play dates for their children (Lois’s son and daughter were the same age as Jessie’s two younger children, Nate, Jr., and Molly). They always sat together during extracurricular activities so it was natural for Lois to mention to Jessie her concerns about planned changes for the honors math program at Rosemont High School.

Lois Schafer, like many math teachers in our schools (and the reason so few American students study “STEM”), had a habit of weeding out all but the most earnest math students in her school. She enjoyed a small elite group of students.

Lois’s explanation of the planned changes for the honors program were simple but not necessarily accurate.

“The high school principal is dismantling the honors program at Rosemont,” she told Jessie, “and I doubt we’ll have any students ready to take the AP Calculus exam by the time Ted gets to his senior year in high school. Even if we have AP Calculus, I won’t be able to get the students ready for the AP exam with the diluted program the principal is putting in place. Our best students, like Ted, need the extra challenges of the honors program classes with me for all four years to be ready for that AP exam.”

Lois’ tale of woe prompted Jessie to meet with the schools principal, Debbie Fortunato, and share her concern over honors math being dismantled. Her son Ted would miss the extra challenges he needed to prepare him for the AP Calculus course.

The principal countered saying honors math was not being dismantled. The extra honors challenges in the curriculum would be offered to all students in every math classroom. Rather than segregating the 25 accelerated math students, they would be mixed into the regular tenth grade math classes with a few in each of the seven sections.

“Honors tenth grade math will be available to any student in these classes (ninth or tenth graders) who is willing to do the extra homework and weekly math challenges and complete the extra honors test questions,” Principal Fortunato said. “All students who do this extra work will receive the honors designation on report cards and high school transcripts.”

“Too many students bail on honors math the way it’s set up now,” she said.

Jessie left the meeting confused and called Lois and told her what Principal Fortunato said.

“The other teachers don’t even want to do the more challenging honors curriculum,” Lois told her. “They have enough trouble getting the students who are struggling to pass. This looks like it could work on paper but it will never fly. Ted is an excellent math student. He will have no trouble sticking with the honors math curriculum all the way to calculus.”

Jessie considered her options and decided to set up a meeting with the superintendent and the high school principal to see if she could get them to change their minds.

Jessie repeated her concerns from the previous meeting and on top of that, she said, the other teachers didn’t even want to take on the extra work involved in dealing with new curriculum expectations for honors students.

Principal Fortunato was calm and professional and maintained that all the teachers were looking forward to the chance to teach honors students, and that she had no concerns about their reluctance to do the extra work involved. The superintendent was mostly silent on the subject. (And, all to often other teachers in school do want to teach the higher level math but are squeezed out by senior teachers like Lois.)

The meeting ended with Superintendent Galvin reassuring Jessie and telling her she should give the new system a try. “We can all evaluate the new honors program’s success after one year of implementation while your son is still in eighth grade,” Galvin said.

What motivates people to run for school boards?

After the meeting while driving home Jessie turned her car around and went directly to the office of the school district clerk. She asked for and was given a petition which when properly completed allowed her to run for the school board in the upcoming May election.

She was going to run for school board and make sure the honors math program stayed as it always was, a program for elite students.

Jessie won her school board seat and it didn’t take her long to figure out Todd Morgan, also newly elected, hated the superintendent and wanted a new football coach.

She also discovered Superintendent Galvin was not quite as smart as she thought, and he seldom brought real data to the school board regarding Rosemont’s academic performance.

At a school board member training session in July Jessie found out that school boards should be limited to hiring the superintendent, setting district and set performance and procedural goals and policies for the school district, monitoring and evaluating the performance of the superintendent in achieving the goals and following the policies and procedures.

In August, during a public school board meeting, Jessie requested a formal evaluation of the academic success of the new honors math program being initiated in September of the year she was elected to the school board (her son’s eighth grade year in the Rosemont school system).

Jessie and the school board agreed the report should be completed by March of the following year so any necessary changes could be implemented the year Ted entered ninth grade.

When March 1st came along, Jessie asked when they could expect the report. Superintendent Galvin in the midst of a contentious budget discussion, and the conflict over football, brushed her off. “We’ll get to that at the next meeting,” he said.

When these same stalling tactics played out at the next school board meeting in late March, Jessie called Principal Fortunato and asked for a report on the new honors program even though she knew such requests should go through the superintendent.

Meanwhile, Lois Schafer, who long enjoyed her AP and honors classes with a few select self-motivated students, told Jessie the new honors program was a disaster with teachers openly ignoring the principal’s request to provide honors challenges to all students in all classes.

Debbie told Jessie she would relay Jessie’s request for this report to the superintendent later that same day when they were scheduled to attend a meeting together.

Jessie was fuming. She’d done everything right. She’d tried to talk to these people and they wouldn’t even show her enough respect to give her an answer to a very reasonable question: “How well was the new honors math program working?”

Jessie called Lois who gave her some new information she received from the teachers’ union president; Debbie Fortunato was due to receive tenure in October. If she was not going to get it the school board had to tell her by July 15.

Tom Galvin’s three-year contract ran out the same month, and he required the same 90-day notice if his contract was not going to be renewed.

The wheels in Jessie’s head started turning. She drove to the home of her longtime friend and PTA colleague Helen Pinkus and proposed Helen run for the school board that May. Helen’s petition was properly submitted in April, and with Jessie’s support Helen was elected to the school board in May with 304 votes along with Todd Morgan’s Pop Warner buddy, Terry Marcus.

For more on author Lonnie Palmer click here

The Monday night massacre click here

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