This was written by Chris Roe and Ralph Smith. Roe is chief executive officer of the California STEM Learning Network; Smith is managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

By Chris Roe and Ralph Smith

The education reform discussion is often fraught with false choices. Consider the news last month that U.S. students are still struggling with science, according to national assessments. The same assessments showed last fall that two thirds of fourth graders are not reading proficiently. 

So should we invest our limited education resources in teaching critical reading skills or in what’s known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math? The truth is, we can and must do both.

 Clearly, budding scientists and engineers can’t comprehend complex texts if they can’t read. At the same time, science and math have the potential to engage youngsters, encouraging them to read more. This improves their chances of reading proficiently by the key third grade milestone, when students pivot from learning to read and begin reading to learn.

Research demonstrates that children who don’t master reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out than better readers. What’s less recognized is that early math aptitude is one of the strongest predictors of student success and college attendance.

Rather than choose between these priorities, schools should find ways to integrate literacy with STEM instruction. This can be as simple as using science texts for reading lessons. Young children can comprehend scientific concepts and often prefer reading about spiders and dinosaurs to fiction. Integration can also go much deeper, incorporating problem solving, vocabulary building, writing and speaking through STEM activities.

 The issue is particularly relevant as the Common Core State Standards move toward implementation, setting the bar nationwide for what students should know at every grade level in math and English language arts.  Next Generation Science Standards were released recently, providing voluntary guidelines for what students should know in the STEM subjects.

The proposed standards emphasize that students must develop and use key literacy skills, such as reading, writing and speaking. Naturally, this is important for STEM instruction, since texts beyond the third- grade require students to decode unfamiliar terms, recognize advanced vocabulary and make sense of increasingly complex and interrelated ideas.

 The emphasis on STEM comes as business and political leaders recognize that U.S. schools are not producing enough graduates with the skills we need to continue leading the world in innovation. Estimates show that jobs that require these skills will grow at almost twice the rate as other jobs in the next decade. And yet, two-thirds of fourth graders fail to demonstrate proficiency in science, and 60 percent graders fail to meet benchmarks in math.

At the same time, momentum is building for a national campaign promoting third-grade reading. Fully two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders — and four fifths of those from low-income families — are not reading proficiently.

To reverse this trend, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is working with educators, policymakers, business leaders, nonprofits and foundations to support learning for children from birth through third grade More than 120 cities, and counties nationwide, including Los Angeles and 15 other California communities, are working with the Campaign to implement action plans that will increase the number of third graders reading on grade level.

Similarly, the California STEM Learning Network  is engage leaders from K-12 and higher education, business and industry, and community groups to help prepare students to succeed in STEM.

We must integrate these educational priorities as we adopt the new standards. This not only makes sense academically, it allows teachers to spend more time on each subject in an already crowded school day. A number of programs being implemented in California are already finding ways to do just that.

 Engineering is Elementary is a hands-on program for grades 1 to 5 that encourages innovation, creativity and problem solving. Each unit has a story featuring a child facing an engineering challenge, such as building a sail for a boat, designing a solar cooker or making a water filter.

Another promising program is Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading, which uses an evidence-based “Do it, Talk it, Read it, Write it” approach with hands-on science activities for grades 2 to 5. In the Shoreline Science unit, students learn about sand, erosion, shore creatures and the effect people have on the environment.

Integrating STEM and literacy instruction certainly has major implications for teacher preparation, curriculum development and assessments. It will take coordinated public-private partnerships among schools, government agencies, foundations and higher education. But given the long-term benefits for our children and our economy, this is the only real choice we have to ensure that our students can read and flourish in the subjects that are already defining this century.


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