In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that the Education Department would launch another competition to spur educational reform in the states.
Four years ago, the Race to the Top program drove changes in state policy on charter schools, teacher tenure, and standards and accountability. Now the administration proposes a competition to “redesign America's high schools.” Rewards will go to schools that develop more classes “that focus on science, technology, engineering and math — the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future,” the president said.
We need all those classes in the STEM fields, as they are called, and as a nation we must do a better job of preparing our young people in these fields. But we don't need to become a nation of technocrats.
Let's not forget that you can't do well in math and engineering if you can't read proficiently, and that reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can't interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history.
You also can't excel at citizenship if you can't read, write or speak well, or understand the complexity of the world and think historically. History helps us understand the features of our worlds that are changeable and that require either reform, because they are damaging, or protection, because they are valuable but vulnerable.
Duke University President Richard Brodhead likes to point out that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute; and Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, all studied the humanities. Dempsey and Varmus have degrees in English. Although Jobs dropped out, he initially attended Reed College, famous for its strong emphasis on the humanities.
U.S. high schools absolutely need to innovate. But our students also need to achieve at far higher levels in the fields of the humanities, not merely in the STEM fields.
Better than a challenge to states to enhance their STEM education would be a challenge to states to build curricular and pedagogic innovations that will allow them to succeed at meeting the new Common Core State Standards.
An initiative of the National Governors Association, the standards seek to clarify the knowledge and skills students need for success in the workforce and in college. There are two sets of standards: one for mathematics and one for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science and technical subjects.
No Child Left Behind left it to states to set their own standards. But because the Common Core standards are being implemented by 45 states and the District of Columbia, we will soon have an opportunity at last to compare the quality of education throughout the country.
The Common Core standards recognize that literacy, the humanities and history are as important as math, science and technical subjects in preparing students for jobs and college. They will also improve our ability to prepare students for citizenship. They should, in other words, help us achieve not only college and work readiness but also participatory readiness.
States are going to have a hard time rising to the level of the new standards. So we could use another competition to excite innovation — but let's have a competition to spur states' efforts to find ways of teaching successfully to the Common Core standards. This would entail fostering innovation and improvement for instruction in language arts and historical and civic literacy, as well as in STEM fields. We can do both. Surely we citizens should be that ambitious.
The writer is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Her forthcoming book, co-edited with Rob Reich, is “Education, Justice, and Democracy.”