Monday, March 25, 2013

Suggestions to a School Considering External STEM

Prepackaged All-In-One Brain Food
I had an opportunity recently to do a little investigation into an organization that is selling its system of STEM learning to K-12 school systems. A friend of mine is the Principal of a K-8 public school that is looking at ways to beef up its technology offerings and STEM in general. I had a meeting with my friend and another of the school administrators to discuss their needs and to hear about a company that has been recommended to them.

I did my due diligence prior to the meeting and reviewed the Common Core State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and of course, the CSTA recommendations for computing in K-8. I also reviewed PARCC, and existing state standards in their state.

For those of you not intimately familiar with all of the above, here are a few items to set the context: The Common Core is sweeping the nation; most states are on board and at some stage of planning and implementation. The Common Core covers English/Language Arts (ELA) and Math. Science is not included, and technology merits a mere mention under "Media and Technology" where it is suggested that technology be integrated throughout as a support tool for other subjects. The NGSS covers science, but explicitly omits computing, suggesting that it belongs under math (for more details see my post on the K-12 Computing Hot Potato).

It was painful to look at the department of education's STEM guidelines web  pages in my friend's state. Practically nothing was there. Sparse would be putting it mildly. Especially compared to the finely detailed descriptions for other areas of study. Oddly enough, for Primary School the STEM listings indicate STEM as Physical Science, Math and Art (Art?). In Middle School it is the same with the addition of some mention of technology under Career Technical Education (CTE for short, and commonly known as vocational education).

Now it became clear to me why there was such an appeal to a slickly developed set of web pages promising to provide a full STEM curriculum, complete with detailed learning goals, class lectures, exercises, assessments, materials, and professional teacher training and support.

The selling organization knows how to do its PR. They use all the right lingo. I was intrigued. I was curious. Of course none of this comes free; there is a hefty price tag. Not necessarily unreasonable - after all, someone put in a lot of work developing this educational system. I sure wish we paid our teachers commensurately with the work they do! I decided to investigate further.

Once I got past the glossy print and graphics, I realized there were very few substantive details. Transparency was not the goal here. Not in the least deterred, I donned full archeological gear and went website digging. This was fun.


If you know what you are looking for you can glean some interesting things from such digging. You read the bios of the leadership team, and the board of directors. What is their educational background, professional education career experience, non-academic experience, affiliations, interests? What is the legal status of the organization? Who is likely to benefit from sales of this system? It's often all there if you look hard enough, in this case about 7 levels down the site tree.

What wasn't there were any examples of syllabi, curriculum, assessments, detailed learning goals. One has to buy their system, and ... here is the kicker: you have to commit to teaching their two base classes.

In the spirit of being open minded, I concede that the company wouldn't want to give away their methodology enough that someone else could scoop them.

It just felt a bit weird, considering all the brough-ha-ha about the need for transparency and accountability in public education.

All of which leads to fascinating speculation about the role and potential contribution from corporate education. Any given system and materials might be of high quality. On the other hand they might not.

What is a school, feeling perhaps left in the dust by the less than transparent maneuvers of their various state agencies and politicians, to do?

After sharing all the interesting specifics I learned about the company in question with my friend and her colleague, I recommended a few things:

- Ask the organization to supply their curricula for examination. The school could offer to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement. This happens all the time in industry, so although perhaps strange to a small school, it shouldn't come as a novel idea to the educational company. There is no reason I can think of why this offer shouldn't result in a "yes".

- If that fails to produce the desired result, and you are still determined to check out this curricula, track down some current users and interview them. In fact, I'd recommend doing that anyway. The organization should be more than willing to supply names as references. Ask those adopter schools the questions that matter to your school and see what they have to say. Also, ask them to share some of their curricular materials with you. Again, this is common, smart, strategy in the business world; same thing when interviewing for a job! Check out the company before you commit!

- One last thing. If, as in this case, the company requires you to commit to using a significant portion of their system, thus locking you in, ask to what extent the required curricular materials can be customized to fit your local situation. You don't want to be forced to teach in a way that conflicts with your mission, culture, students in any substantive way.

Wouldn't it be interesting to do an in-depth comparison of industrial K-8 educational models with traditional public education models? 

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