Do the Math: Education and Employment

Air Date: September 25, 2012

This week, Ann Avary, of the Northwest Center of Excellence in Marine Manufacturing and Technology (Anacortes, Washington) interviews Heidi Boley, who is an Instructional Coach for Action Learning Systems and for the Berkeley Unified School District, as well as a curriculum and assessment developer/instructional coach for Swun Math.

What’s the connection? Listen here to find out.

Ann Avary starts by sharing some info from Ingalls shipbuilding: When they are talking about prospective employees, the issue about math skills come up immediately. We know there are real deficiencies.

Why is basic match such a hurdle?

Boley says teaching math is very difficult, and many teachers in early grades have to be masters of everything, but usually they love to teach reading but rely on district resources for teaching math.  Most school systems will provide early intervention for students who cannot read. Less frequently is there any intervention for students with poor math skills.

As math classes become more abstract, students who don’t have the basics find that algebra and higher math becomes terribly difficult. And in out country, we’ve made it okay to say, “I’m not good at math.”

Is there a shift in K-12 to remedy this?

There is some movement, with adoption of common course standards. That’s helpful.  So when we talk about students “who can’t do arithmetic” we know we’re talking about the same thing.

On the other hand, the common standard requires teachers to teach math in a deeper way, and many teachers have not had the necessary training.  Whether or not we have the necessary money and time, I don’t know. I believe we do.

We have an opportunity to focus on what it means to be able to know and do math. We’re making some small steps toward clarity for everybody.

Is there a place where industry can begin to interface at the elementary level, and let schools know the importance of math of marine careers?

Learning is enhanced when students can apply what they’ve learned. The trades are a good example of that. So is context. Teachers need to know when skills can be applied. If they had access to concrete examples, they would use them – rather than relying on textbook examples, which may not be the best.

In the move to STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics), there are more examples appearing, but we lose sight of the goal with is career- and college-readiness. Trades and STEM should not be mutually exclusive.

Proportional reasoning, number sense, word problems: These are all important for college-bound students or trades-bound students.  It used to be that high school trades programs had math embedded in them. We don’t see that much anymore.

There is, however, project-based learning, and those could be even better if they were set up with real-world trades-based scenarios.

STEM and trades are not polar opposites. Trades need to be incorporated fully into STEM. In Washington state, there is now a STEM video produced for the trades. It doesn’t matter where a student is going to go post-high school, math skills are vital. It’s been very difficult to get the high schools to incorporate more trades math. Have you seen that?

No, not yet. But look at the “T” in STEM: Trades and technology should go hand in hand, especially as the job market continues to change.

What about resources? Do we need more math teachers? Can they teach both trades math and advanced placement courses?

We definitely teach more math resources, and teachers are expected to teach multiple layers of math. In some schools, there are restrictions, so teachers may teach only math or only practical math.

Pathways are standard in high school, but the decisions about which pathway a student will take may be made by grade six. What we think of as an opportunity may also become a “track” because of the way a student looks.

Thinking outside the box, what would a school look like that offered AP courses and also required trades math for practical experience.  I can see that as being a wonderful option, one that might be connected to careers and industry in the community.

Students need those applied-math experiences, even if they are planning careers in other areas. Kids need the opportunity to have math experiences that round out their education. Several naval architects tell me that young people need to know more about how things actually work.

A lot of internships and field experiences take place after high school, before college. But if we are talking about the importance of math, shouldn’t we be saying those experiences should be taken early on.

In Bridge programs, to help struggling students, maybe there needs to be more inclusion for math students. Otherwise, tracking kicks in by grade seven and doors close.

Students seem to have less perseverance, so it seems to me that we need to be more creative. A recent study shows that math skills are a better predictor of future success and earnings than any other skills learned in high school.  Better math students, better GNP for the whole country?

We need to get over the concept that it’s okay to say, “I don’t like math.”

Our industry needs to interact more with schools to show teachers what students will need in terms of math in the post-secondary world. On of the biggest drivers would be direct input from industry, no matter what the field. What’s your take on that?

I agree. Students tell me “I’m not going to need math” and they have a quick answer for everything. So, I went to department stores and asked for copies of tests for prospective employees and showed them to my students. I want them to be able to work. When they saw those tests, some of their push back was muffled. They just don’t know what they should be able to do in terms of mathematics.  They do know with reading and writing. If we can provide them with a greater array of real examples, that makes our jobs easier.

Teachers should not be afraid to reach out to local industry. Typically, they’ll find very positive partnerships, and it doesn’t need to be with the biggest company in town. Often companies will be very supportive.

Absolutely. Career days are good, but often they don’t include enough information about specific examples of the kinds of math they have to do. We need to get down and dirty about specific skills.  With math-related keys, we see how high-stakes tests are used as filters. That’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.

Today’s marine technology requires very high competency levels today. Students need to be aware of that.  Many employers have trouble attracting and retaining a viable workforce, for many different reason.  The marine industry loses out on many levels. If kids at younger ages had more trades math, we’d have a much larger pool. Do you see a difference in how boys and girls approach math? What about different populations?

In California, we have many new English-learners, and one of the areas that they are often willing to take on is math because it is a universal language. So, there’s a high degree of comfort with math for those students. “You may struggle with English, but you can express yourself with math.”

During my tenure as a teacher, I saw trades math be replaced with the “academy” concept: for example, career-oriented curriculum devoted to one area or another. Is it possible to think of a trades type of academy, rather than ROP (Regional Occupational Programs)?  I hear you pushing for more integration with ongoing academic high school programs.

There is a perception that going to college means pursuing careers that are not trades oriented.

There’s much misunderstanding about what careers in certain industries actually are. Maybe we need some new word to describe the trades. Parents are the gatekeepers.

In the biotech situation, students join an “academy” and there’s a partnership with a local company. When they complete high school, they can apply for a job and take courses at the community college before moving on to a four-year degree. Do the marine industries have similar situations?

Absolutely. There are several schools that offer immersion in marine technology, on both coasts. Washington State also has an aviation high school. Where there’s a political will, industry will respond as long as the schools are on board, too. But the unfortunate thing is that it only exists in pockets. I would love to see more, and there’s great support from the industry, including donations of space, supplies, and materials. This is all part of getting rid of the notion that STEM and applied math are two separate things. It’s eating the elephant one bite at a time.

In the Bay Area, there is not similar offering. Is there anything similar here to what you have in Washington?

There may be, but probably it is localized, where there is a concentration of repair yards.

The reason I’m asking is high schools have fewer and fewer counselors, so how can students find out what their options really are.  I’m wondering, too, how much our counselors know about these opportunities. If you have a successful program, and a student is willing to re-locate, what are the chances that a counselor will know about this. How can these successful models get the word out?

That’s a good question. We are utilizing a number of different methods in Washington state, including social media, e-learning, and online training. We draw on a lot of one and one with high schools and middle schools.  And we put a lot of resources in the middle schools to create opportunities for teachers and parents. It’s a multi-pronged approach.

I think all of the activities you’ve described are ones that should be used. I’m trying to think more global, and more national. How do we let a student in California now that a program exists in Washington? Our counselors would not know that. Maybe there’s a way to set up regional programming.  It’s hard to think about replicating a model if you don’t know a model exists. I urge you to let people know what you are doing.

We now have a lot of material for another show. This has been great information. I hope the marine industry will now think in these terms.


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