We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.
– President Obama, 2nd inaugural address
Ensuring educational equity is imperative; some would say it is even a moral obligation. Whether minority is defined as gender or race or socio-economic status, entry into the STEM world is an economic equalizer. Equal access to educational programs is too shallow to sufficiently provide a description of equity. Some, in the effort to create equity, offer equal access to advanced courses in science or math but the courses ironically remain filled with non-minority students.
So, what do we mean by equity? Students enter our schools at differing levels of readiness. And as they begin their learning journeys, gaps continue to grow. By the time a student enters high school, the gaps are most often set and so are the limits associated with the gaps. To begin a reversal process in high school is hard work compared to the avenues available earlier in a child’s life. Removing prerequisites may make the adults feel better, but open access does little to create a sincere welcome for minority students into successful leaning environments by the time they are juniors and seniors. To be clear, equality means sameness and equity means fairness. So how can we achieve equity in education?
First, we believe all benefit from an open discussion about personal beliefs and the mindsets that determine the way we treat some children differently from others. These discussions begin anew with every new child or adult who enters the community. How the school, learning opportunities, and gap closing efforts are organized are vital components of achieving equity but it all begins with the attitudes of the adults and the place where those intersect with children.
STEM Can Level the Playing Field
All children, at every grade level and achievement level, can benefit from learning in a STEM centric environment. A problem- and project-focused trans-subject STEM learning environment invites all learners to become engaged in the learning process. (Myers & Berkowicz, p. 28) This levels the playing field, as all learners join the process at varied points of entry. Curiosity, relationship, collaboration, and creativity begin to matter alongside the ability to understand concepts, apply them, and remember and repeat facts. In our view, this type of STEM environment is inclusive of all subjects and calls for valuable business and higher ed partnerships.
Students living in poverty are growing in numbers. Within that category, there are Hispanic or Latino, non-Hispanic white, and black or African American children. (Kids Count, 2014) Students who live in poverty make up one of the largest groups of students who enter schools already limited in their learning skills. There are students who enter with learning differences and challenges, students with psychological problems, students living in stressful home situations, students with health challenges. That all requires different interventions, different experiences, and ends with better chances for all students to have equitable access.
When students from non-mainstream backgrounds receive equitable learning opportunities, they are capable of attaining science outcomes comparable to their mainstream peers. The same is true for mathematics and, presumably, for other STEM subjects, as well. (STEM Smartbrief).
So how does this work? This century calls for systemic shifting. We can no longer tinker at the edges or push new things into an old model believing that we can achieve equity or close the achievement gap. These attempts have exhausted the system and those working within it. Yet, as educators in this century we cannot abandon large numbers of our children to life without the advantages of graduation as college, career and life ready. Educators with the vision and commitment are called to begin serious system planning characterized by skill, knowledge, open heartedness and the ability to lead true consensus.
Opening Hearts and Minds Begins and Sustains Equity
It takes courage to look within and acknowledge that our views of students vary, and that, to use Carol Dweck’s framework, our personal mindsets can be limiting how well some students do in school. Leading schools that invite the faculty, school leaders, and, yes, parents and community members, to challenge their mindsets requires a leader who can 1) can do it him or herself, 2) create and maintain an atmosphere where others are helped to feel safe enough to embark on a new and exciting learning journey, and 3) remain dedicated to supporting the organization as they welcome partners from outside to join them. It requires a strategically planned and carefully and consistently articulated process. But the work of creating equity does not stop there. As populations of students change, the equity goal always guides our thinking and decisions.
STEM Can Be the Fulcrum
The public support for more science, technology, engineering, and math offered in schools, and the dearth of workers from this country prepared for careers in those fields can be a distraction from a more fundamental truth: STEM offers huge potential for schools to accomplish a total shift into the 21st century. The short view calls for simply more courses in these fields. But those who understand the potential see greater possibilities that include all students at all levels. In addition to the impact of the four subjects on the potential workforce in the 21st century economy, the manner in which these four subjects are interconnected and the manner in which they are best learned opens a door long closed by units and certifications and siloed delivery systems. When math is taught in the service of science or technology; when art and photography, technology and art are used to capture and communicate scientific information; when history and literature are used to investigate social and technological progress and reveal understanding of life; when physical education becomes the place to consider the magnificent engineering of the body and incorporates the math of wellness and game strategy; when business classes combine with English classes as resumes, cover letters, and presentations are developed; and when business and higher education partners come to school and invite students to learning opportunities outside schools for authentic application of the subjects being learned, all students benefit.
It Begins in Kindergarten
To maximize the advantage for all students, creating STEM environments in the earliest of years is essential. Beginning in kindergarten, learning experiences that have observable outcomes, like early coding experiences, using blocks and art to design solutions to problems, introducing children to field professionals in careers unfamiliar to the students, and offering opportunities to work alongside them, working on real world problems, communicating their learning as performance sets the stage for learning opportunities to come. The more opportunities created and offered to the young ones, the narrower the gaps become as they continue their learning journeys to graduation. Enriching the learning experiences of young students prepares them for dynamic, interdisciplinary, high level integrated coursework in high schools. The continuous change process for schools can narrowing the gap, increase the engagement of the student body, and better prepare students to make course and career choices based upon their interests and less based upon their limits. That is equity.