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STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math), the Business World, and Union Implications

October 13, 2010

Bruce Bonney shared this:

Last Friday I was involved in a STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) skills workshop at Norwich HS that I volunteered to facilitate. It was organized by the CDO Workforce group in Oneonta. It was the basic “How do we connect teachers and students with the realities of the workplace and get kids ready to compete in a global economy?” type conference day.

I moderated a panel discussion and offered comments regarding the design of what they call a “Meaningful Educational Learning Outline (MELO)” – basically an interactive classroom experience designed to help students learn more about the world of work and develop some of their STEM skills.

I sat in on a debriefing of the day with the business people. Their comments confirm everything we say about what business needs and current high school graduates don’t possess! (Nation at Risk , S-CANS skills, C-DOS Standards, deja vu much) The inability of local business to hire competent local graduates is killing their bottom line/competitiveness. Not only does it cost to recruit and train folks from outside the area, the people they train invariably leave for greener pastures within a few years. The good news – the businesses WANT local schools to establish a relationship with the business so they can recruit graduates to work for them who will probably stay to live in the area. It is an open invitation to link the classroom with the community — and get real-world feedback for student performance. I made that point several times during the day.

The conversation with the business folks also revealed the level of discontent they feel with schools/teachers/teacher unions. Teacher unions are clearly in the sights of angry voters. For whatever reason, teacher unions just don’t seem to get how resentful large segments of the population are regarding issues of teacher job security, tenure, the assumption of yearly salary increases, generosity of benefit packages, working hours, and the length of the school year. As one executive from Raymond Corp. said, ” You describe a six hour day x 180 days of employment in our industry and for us you are describing a part time job!” Clearly the characterizations I heard of teacher working conditions were fraught with misconception and second/third party information. Nonetheless, the anger is real – and these are influential people who vote for local school budgets and membership of School Boards.

Politically, teacher unions are killing themselves when they take a hard line on salary freezes, teacher evaluation, and reform efforts, etc. in the current economic and political environment.

I had a great and very civil conversation last year with a relatively experienced (probably 10 years) Special Education teacher when I was substitute teaching for her. She is very talented and dedicated and does a great job. By her own admission she is an outspoken member and supporter of teacher union.

I shared with her some of the insights I describe above. She noted that she had never thought of the situation from the perspective of the other side. Perhaps more concerning to me (as a former teacher union President), it didn’t seem to me that her union was making any effort to address the public’s concerns or reflect on their implications. At the end of our discussion she said to me, “I wish you would come to one of our union meetings and tell us what you just told me.” I replied, “Invite me and I’ll be there in a heart beat.” Has not happened to date.

In some respects this whole situation reminds me of the furor over the opening of US relations with Communist China in 1972 when Richard Nixon traveled there to break a generation of American diplomatic ostracism. Only a politician with an impeccable anti-communist record could risk challenging the status quo and get away with it. Similarly, it’s going to take somebody from inside the education establishment with an impeccable record of support for teachers and teacher unions to help them see the political gamble they are taking in seeming to be resistant to constructive change.

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