In a room brimming with both frustration and expertise, Gila County educators brainstormed for hours about how to reverse an alarming deterioration in kids’ knowledge about science and technology.
The high-powered group of community, education and business leaders decried the lack of technical skills among graduates and pleaded for reforms that reverse the low scores and lack of student motivation.
“These kids think that jobs grow on trees,” said Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce manager John Stanton.
“They’re going to get a very rude awakening. We’re all afraid that at some point in time we’re just going to run out of that qualified work force.”
“We perceive that education holds the key to the success of our community,” said Payson Councilor Su Connell at a recent meeting on science education with a teleconference link between Globe and Payson. That’s one reason Payson is working so hard to bring a college campus to Rim Country, she added.
“We have to prepare a work force that is energized. We have to have that excitement that’s been lost.”
Her comments came during a session sponsored by the regional directors of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition. This alliance of 500 business and educational organizations has in recent years handed out millions in grants to improve floundering science education programs nationwide. The meeting included about 12 participants in Payson and about 25 in Globe.
One international study that compared U.S. students to students in 35 other countries concluded that students here score just barely above the international average in math and science, according to figures provided by the National Center for Educational Statistics.
“The Nation’s Report Card” surveyed 300 students and found that only 21 percent of 12th graders performed at or about the “proficient” level in science — including only about 1 percent who had “advanced” skills. About 20 percent couldn’t even demonstrate “basic” knowledge.
Arizona students scored near the bottom in almost every category. Average scores in Arizona lagged 6-8 percent behind the national average, depending on grade level. Generally, about 40 percent of Arizona students scored below “basic” and only about 20-24 percent score as “proficient.” Less than 1 percent ranked as “advanced.”
Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien said that STEM funding has already played a key role in establishing an innovative vocational program in solar technology, where students not only learn how to assemble solar energy systems, but also learn the physics behind solar energy.
Next semester, the Payson School District hopes to launch a new four-year vocational program that would prepare students for careers in engineering.
However, the district has mostly been preoccupied this year with cuts in state funding that have forced teacher layoffs, school closures and an increase in average class sizes.
“These projects will lead the way,” said O’Brien of the new technology programs in the district.
He spoke through a teleconference link in the county offices with a group of business and educational leaders in Globe, at a conference set up by Gila County Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell.
Unfortunately, noted O’Brien, “although parents groups have been quite supportive, these programs are very soft-capital intensive.”
The state legislature has in the past two years eliminated 90 percent of the money school districts can use for “soft capital,” like curriculum, textbooks and software. The budget for such things in Payson has gone from $600,000 to $60,000 in the past two years.
Barbara Fitzgerald, also an administrator for Payson Schools, said the district couldn’t even use some federal stimulus grants to spur science education because “there’s no time to get people trained.”
She said the district must scramble just to keep up with budget cuts and increased requirements in core subjects involving reading, writing and math.
Time devoted to mastering basic skills like reading and writing often crowd electives like science classes out of many students’ schedules.
She said even when teachers get advanced training through the kinds of programs STEM funds, they often have trouble mastering the technology needed to introduce the new methods. Those teachers must have the time, energy and tools to inspire students to learn sometimes difficult subjects, she said.
“We’ve got to be looking outside the box,” said Fitzgerald.
“They need to be inspired by the technology so they know why they’re struggling to master reading and math.”
Rick Reed, a technology expert for Payson Unified School District, said some teachers struggle to learn the new technologies they need. “I’ve almost begged people to let me in” to demonstrate new technology.
“But there are times I’m at a professional development meeting and there were teachers who couldn’t double-click a mouse. They will see me at a big gathering and say, ‘this is great, we’ve got to touch base,’ and two months later, they haven’t done anything.
“We have the technology,” he said, citing the classroom learning potential of the internet and video conferencing. “It’s here. If we can get it into the classroom, the sky’s the limit.”
Chamber manager Stanton said the schools should tap into the expertise in the community.
“Business feels left out. We have great educators — the problem is motivating students to want to go in and get a job. Businesses want student trainees,” he said. But he recalled one program in which the business owner went through a stack of student applications “and only found three that could read and write” well enough to do the job.
Dan Adams, a community member, observed “You have an impressive list of big hitters here and on your letterhead. But you’re using your money like a large-bore shotgun. You should be targeting industry.”
Gila Community College board member Tom Loeffler said that schools should take advantage of the expertise in the community — especially in a place like Payson with many retired business executives, scientists and experts.
“Gila County is fortunate to have a lot of retired people with a lot of expertise. You need to network with that retired community and motivate students and get them on track with the variety of careers out there.”
Reed added that the back-to-basics movement in the classroom has crowded out topics like science.
“We can talk a lot about all these fine programs, but teachers have to have confidence this is the direction we want to move in. But they’re saying ‘I don’t have time for project-based learning, I have to get these kids ready for the AIMS (graduation) tests.’ They’re being hammered, saying ‘you have to produce academic results,’ so they go to the AIMS workbook.”
Stanton said the bottom line remains the need to produce graduates who can get a job, learn new skills — and maintain the nation’s slipping lead in science and technology.
“What happens if we get a college in this town and we don’t have the people with the education to support it? We need ‘how to get a job 101.’ Every business leader I’ve talked to is willing to get on board. Heck, we want our own kids to be able to stay here, but we just don’t have the jobs.”