Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Child Is Not a STEM-bot

Of our children, numbers 1 and 3 can understand an do math, calculus, and higher math with enough work. Child number 2 works hard at it, but he is a math whiz. He wanted to add a math major to his physics major, but he ultimately decided that the extra semesters weren't worth it.

Children numbers 4 and 5 struggle with math. Child number 5 is making decent headway, however, by learning through the more hands-on non-traditional approach used at her charter school. But to child number 4, our Asperger son, his math class seems like a Sisyphean battle against a system that is determined to torment him.

For a decade and a half we have all been inundated with the relentless mantra about the pending crisis shortage of sufficient people to work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs. This has allowed the nation's massive educatocracy to pour vast amounts of taxpayer resources into STEM education programs.

After it became clear that this looming crisis is largely a myth, educrats that are building STEM empires changed tactics. Once it became clear that relatively few students will end up spending their careers in STEM jobs, educrats began arguing for their cherished programs by saying that due to technological advance, having a deep grounding in STEM subjects is about the same as being literate was for people living a century ago.

So being able to crunch a bunch of arcane equations is about to become as valuable as literacy was a hundred years ago? Color me skeptical. Most people use computers to do that kind of stuff. The only time most of these people will even think about anything beyond relatively basic math will be when they shudder with revulsion as they recall the years they spent suffering in math classes.

It is also argued that we are falling behind other countries in student STEM performance. Researchers have pointed out that county-to-country education comparisons are notoriously faulty. What studies really show is that other countries are improving their educational outcomes as their economies advance. The U.S., however, is not seeing improvements in outcomes; only increases in educational spending.

Marc Tucker, President of the National Center on Education and the Economy writes, "The countries that are producing more people with higher skills in mathematics, science, engineering, technology, and science (sic) don't have STEM programs.  ...we don't hear their educators talking about STEM priorities.  We don't hear their industrial leaders doing that either. The term is not used."

The answer to this conundrum, says Tucker is that these other countries "have education systems that work and we don't." He continues, "When we start falling behind in an area, we invent a program. When they start falling behind, they ask, What's wrong with our system? And they fix it. The truth is that "programs" won't work in an arena like this."

Tucker contends that the problems with the U.S. education system are systemic. Thus, programs bolted onto the existing system cannot work in the long run. It is quite easy to observe, however, that they can develop into deeply entrenched bureaucracies that defy efforts to kill, seriously reform, or defund them.

After noting what successful education systems do — it's worth reading his whole article to see what he says — Tucker writes, "Our most effective competitors do not need STEM programs because they have done all these things, which are the things you have to do to have a first rate education system."

Still, I can't help but wonder what we are losing in our headlong foray into STEM education, which certainly must come at the cost of reducing other educational offerings. We seem intent on turning every child into a STEM-bot that thinks within the parameters defined by the STEM educrats. This is precisely the opposite of the creativity that Sir Ken Robinson claims (in the most watched TED Talk ever) is absolutely necessary for the jobs of the future.

Sitting around waiting for the entrenched interests "to abandon their belief that they can get what they want with STEM programs" is a fool's errand. At any rate, it's not going to help my son that is struggling with math. He has demonstrated that he can learn math concepts, especially with one-on-one help. But he cannot do everything that is required of him under current STEM programs. (He's suffering in physics too.) He can't complete all of the homework assigned. He can't deal with the computer based work that he is required to do at home. He can't get everything done in class that they want him to do in class.

Unfortunately, my son's math teacher is part of the problem. She simply cannot seem to comprehend that he has special needs. A resource teacher that works with my son son has repeatedly tried to explain to the math teacher that it takes our son twice as long to do half the math work that an average student can do, meaning that he can only handle a quarter of the workload.

But the math teacher doesn't seem to get it. In her defense, our son appears fairly normal on the outside. She sees a kid that looks like he's being lazy and inattentive in class, a kid that often turns in incomplete homework when he turns it in at all.

We would like our son to get more done at school, but by the end of the school day he has little left to give. He does homework every single night, but he can literally only do it for so long and then he's tapped out. Few people seem to understand what it's like to have a disability like our son's. His math teacher's 'helpful' suggestions that he stay after school or that he just do more homework are unhelpful at best. Like many STEM arrogants, she acts as if math is the only class our son has, when in reality he struggles and has homework in many classes.

As I wrote last month, our son is stuck in a system that judges his intelligence by his ability to perform within parameters to which he is ill suited, like Einstein's proverb about judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree. Our son is very intelligent. His intelligence just doesn't present itself in a way that suits the educratocracy complex.

Sometimes I despair of ever getting our son to successfully complete his compulsory education. We have considered alternatives but have found none that seem like they would work much better for him. Some days I want to shout at the massive Borg-like school system that my child is not a STEM-bot and that they will never successfully torment him into becoming one.

But then I realize that we're just one family with unique needs. To the educrats we're like gnats. We can be annoying at times, but they can also squash us. The education system is filled with good-willed and well-intentioned people. But they are stuck in a system that is often insidious. Unfortunately, that's not going to change anytime soon.


Juli said...

Have you considered homeschooling? I honestly believe it saved my son's life. And definitely gave our family back our life. Best scary decision ever!

Scott Hinrichs said...

Re Juli: Thanks for the thoughtful comment on homeschooling. I deeply admire those that do homeschooling well. We have often considered this option over the years. But it has never yet seemed to be the right thing for our family. Parental elder care duties and certain other obligations make it difficult time wise. Also, our son feels like he would miss out on the aspects of school social life that he values.

And then there is the issue of relationship dynamics. We feel like we can relate with Danny from Asperger Experts who explains that he loves his mom, but that if she had tried to homeschool him, they might have killed each other.

Still, we have worked with our son's counselors and he may end up doing some online courses instead of spending all day at school next year. We would still have to monitor and work with him on those, and frankly we're a little worried about how it will actually work out. But that may turn out to be the best option for our situation.