The First Way to Boost STEM Learning? Stop the Constant Standardized Test-Taking | OPINION

The '20s propelled America into a decade of remarkable prosperity. Technological advances led the way to a major economic boom as assembly lines streamlined mass production of goods purchased by those flooding into U.S. cities. Science and technology fueled the boom. From communications and transportation to home goods, inventors of the era delivered on the promise of a better tomorrow.

That was the 1920s, of course. Now we need to make sure the 2020s will be just as innovative. How can the United States reprioritize its science and tech bona fides to roar into the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The key ultimately lies in how we approach STEM education and invest in future generations. The teaching of science, technology, engineering and math is critical for America to compete globally in the decade to come. To educate the inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow, we must commit to transforming STEM education today.

school kids drawing
Letting kids be kids is an important way to boost STEM education Anthony Asael//Art in All of Us

STEM education happens at all grade levels, both in and out of school. Though today the concept of STEM is often treated as a commodity in the form of curricula, toys and teaching products, the truth is that the movement's origins lie with educators who championed inclusivity and wanted deep, meaningful learning in these subjects available to all. It's important to examine these historical roots to understand where we've come from and to fortify the movement for future generations.

Let Kids Be Kids, Not Test Takers
According to a 2015 NEA survey, 70 percent of teachers believe that their students' standardized tests are not developmentally appropriate. Since No Child Left Behind mandated testing, students have spent more time preparing for high-stakes exams that seek to assess genuine learning with narrow forms of questioning. It's worth noting that in Finland-one of the best educational systems in the world: their children do not take standardized tests and perform much better. It's time to embrace a more holistic approach.

King's College London reports that most children's views about science are formed by the time they reach age 14 or by the end of middle school. If we're going to inspire a love of science, confidence in math and the desire to pursue STEM careers, the time to do so is when students are young. Implementation should take the form of authentic play and exploration rather than rote drilling of facts. While students experiment with blocks and other manipulatives, encouraging them to question and try new approaches forms the foundation of scientific thinking.

A full 18 percent of teachers take on additional jobs to make ends meet. They're also leaving the profession at the fastest rate ever recorded, and they won't be easy to replace. STEM teachers are particularly hard to come by, as technology professions often pay far better than starting teacher salaries. To attract and retain good teachers, schools need to offer a competitive salary. Teachers also need additional time to learn from mentors who are not only subject experts but also masters of classroom management and pedagogy.

School libraries aren't just for books anymore. In her work, Azedah Jamalian found that 61% of middle school libraries also incorporate "maker spaces" for students to experiment and build on ideas. School librarians are working hard to put to rest the idea that they work in silent spaces and are instead transforming libraries into learning centers where students and teachers can not only find information, but use it to solve problems together. That's the essence of STEM, and it should be at the center of the school community.

Too often, though, STEM is positioned in opposition to the arts and humanities. While it's true that there's limited funding to go around, arguing that one subject is more valuable than another is counterproductive. Scientific thinking is also creative thinking, and STEM fields benefit from expertise in design, psychology and many other disciplines. STEM and humanities teachers should be allies, not adversaries, when it comes to advocating for better funding and stronger practices for all students.

Overall, college enrollment has increased significantly over the past 20 years, rising 24 percent from 1996 to 2006 and another 12 percent from 2006 to 2016. Student loan debt has also increased sharply, with the number of debtors doubling over the past 15 years. Parents, teachers and the culture at large all push kids to go to a four-year college, but it's not the right choice for everyone. Robust STEM education should also include the type of hands-on learning required to thrive in the trades, medical support jobs and more.

Read more: The Best STEM High Schools in America

Excellent STEM education is often seen as an enriching activity. It certainly is, but that doesn't mean that only honors students deserve to learn. All students, regardless of background or ability, should be provided access to STEM education that meets their needs. This means providing accommodations for learning differences and ensuring that STEM programs provide equitable access to technology for students who can't afford to bring their own iPads to school. STEM is for everyone.

K-12 school accreditation systems are outdated, and they aren't clearly aligned to accountability standards. There are several accreditation boards across the country, and their standards and processes aren't always transparent. A growing body of research has found that this practice in its current form is both expensive and ineffective at pushing schools to improve educational outcomes. Instead, it's time to focus funds on programs with proven results and use AI/big data to better understand schools.

China and India far outpace the U.S. in the number of university graduates with STEM degrees. That's largely due to population, so it's not possible to compete on quantity. We can, however, produce better quality, highly skilled workers that are simply the best at what they do. To make sure that American STEM professionals are the most sought-after in the world, we need to provide a world-class education from kindergarten through college.

As we rapidly approach the 2020s, America finds itself once again at the cusp of new era. Automation, artificial intelligence and super-connectivity are all poised to transform the economy in unpredictable ways.
Will the United States continue to lead the way? With well-educated leaders in the STEM fields, the next decade could usher in a Roaring '20s for the new century.