Arizona, We Have A Problem: The State Of S.T.E.M. Education

Arizona, We Have A Problem: The State Of S.T.E.M. Education

By Diane Douglas and Dr. Peter Pingerelli |

Some remember the live broadcast of Apollo 8 orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968. Over 1/4 of the world’s population listened in, as the crew read from the Book of Genesis. The United States of America led in space exploration, and we were another step closer to man stepping onto the moon’s surface: an achievement requiring education, dedication, courage, and perseverance of thousands of men and women.

And yet it was a simple analog device called a slide rule that helped us achieve this goal. With over 5 million parts in the Apollo Saturn V spacecraft, astronauts, engineers, scientists, and students routinely used slide rules to make the Apollo program a reality while also allowing users to develop and enhance mental skills when calculating an answer.

We certainly don’t advocate revitalizing this nostalgic masterpiece of technology with the advances of graphing calculators and computers, but there’s something remarkable and important about continuously exercising our mental capacities as we become seemingly more dependent upon our newfangled digital world. Today, we need to simply ask Google, Alexis, or Siri to answer a question as waves of artificial intelligence increasingly sweep into our culture and educational system. But can we still aspire to achieve these national aspirations of new frontiers when our country is failing to educate the upcoming generation of students desiring to become medical professionals, scientists, or engineers? How can our nation excel in these fields if our students no longer understand the math and science behind the tools?

In Arizona the results are sounding the warning bells. Of all students statewide, 60% are failing English and 67% are failing math according to the 2022 assessment. And yet all we hear from a system incapable of teaching our children basic academics are demands for more money. The Arizona state budget for 2023-24 is $17.8 billion of which $9.3 billion is allocated to K-12 education. When do we stop giving money to a system that can’t do what it is paid to do?

Results are also discouraging when it comes to statewide science assessments. In 2018 and 2019, 50% of students statewide were not successful at passing the AIMs science assessment, and the 2021 and 2022 results from the new assessment AzSCI are yet to be made public.

And what about the educational rigor and curricula developed for K-12? Are we truly preparing students to become not only critical thinkers but also future scientists and engineers? While every student may not aspire to be a doctor, scientist, or engineer, is it unreasonable to expect that a graduate leave with at least a high school level understanding of these subjects in order to be an informed member of our society? Have Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (S.T.E.M.) initiatives provided the needed reforms? Are our general educational and STEM dollars being directed to impactful programs or only those that merely mirror the political agenda? Comparing the two philosophies is like comparing the difference between environmental conservationists such as President Theodore Roosevelt versus environmental activists like Greta Thunberg.

We offer considerations that need to be coupled to reforms that don’t just nibble around the edges but take significant bites at improving our state’s educational system.

The following steps, we believe, offer a starting point.

  • Focus on fundamentals of reading, math, and science. Just as phonics is the gateway to a good reader, a solid foundation in arithmetic is quintessential. Students need to know multiplication tables, how to divide without using a calculator, percentages, and the difference between fractions and decimals. In 2018, 79 countries administered the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to more than 600,000 students in public and private schools measuring 15-year-olds’ ability to use reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills to prepare them for workforce and educational challenges. The U.S. students ranked 8th in reading, 30th in math, and 11th in science. These scores have remained stagnant for decades with no foreseeable improvements. This concern is perhaps best summarized by the words of the Apollo 13 Commander James A. Lovell, “Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem here” when the spacecraft service module’s oxygen tank ruptured.
  • Our big math problem with K-12. Competency in basic mathematics is not just the domain of students motivated to be scientists and engineers. Our society and individual freedoms function best and are protected when its members are educated. How many times have we visited a deli counter, and the worker does not know that 1/4 of a pound fractionally represents 0.25 on their digital scale. We fear the fundamentals of math are not being adequately practiced in too many of Arizona’s classrooms. Practicing and drilling mathematical concepts and calculations builds and strengthens the connections in our brains. Student athletes continuously practice skills of the game, pianists translate brain connections and movements into music. And while practicing math skills may seem boring and redundant it is nonetheless imperative for long-term learning. Perhaps a solution is to stop cramming in new curricula that may be interesting, but do not fortify long-term learning. Too often, incoming high school freshman lack the basic arithmetic skills to be successful in algebra. Like all endeavors requiring skills, math must be practiced over and over to ensure the necessary competencies.
  • STEM education MUST be more than STEM entertainment. Most people are intrigued by science and exploration. Early on in primary education (K-4), it is important to capture interest in young minds. But as students progress in their interest in science careers, there is a necessity in STEM programs to introduce the rigors of math and science into the program’s curriculum. It may be a load of fun to fly a drone or launch a model rocket, but it should be accompanied with the key scientific principles and the underlying math that is age appropriate.
  • Curriculums should NOT be reimagined from proven methods for science education. For example, as pointed out in a recent publication, “Science education needs to overcome its habitual biting reflex against ‘the’ Scientific Method and realize its potentials as well as its limitations….” The author continues, “Vetoing ‘the’ Scientific Method even from introductory science at the primary level might actually do harm…” (Science & Education (2021) 30:1037–1073). The article goes on to explain why scientific inquiry should not supplant the scientific method which provides a clear and easy to understand approach to scientific discovery in the natural world.
  • Qualified S.T.EM. Teachers. We believe an effective teacher needs three things – a passion for the subject they teach, good communication skills, and knowledge of the subject they teach “inside-out.” But too often many of our teachers, while possessing the first two criteria, are deemed “Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)” in areas that were not their college major. We believe this is the most troublesome for high school science courses but also affects seventh and eighth graders. Moreover, we assert non-SME teaching results in omissions of fundamental scientific concepts, and in our opinion, leads students into adopting an “emotional science” curriculum that is often ideologically driven. Shouldn’t students be well-versed in the carbon cycle and its stages before adapting scenarios that our planet faces imminent catastrophic consequences in five years? Students need critical information to intelligently support or reject such hypotheses. We understand the problem of teacher shortages in Arizona — particularly in math and the natural sciences — but asking a teacher to teach without the academic background results in poorer learning outcomes as demonstrated by state assessment scores.
  • Reinforce objective truth of science and emphasize academic excellence in Arizona K-12 classrooms. Our K-12 classroom curriculum needs to refocus on objective truths of scientific principles unfettered by personal beliefs or emotional activism. We are concerned that students are too often asked how they feel about a subject before teaching them the facts about the subject. If our students don’t understand basic underlying principles that are always true about the natural world, how can they engage in meaningful debate or constructive controversy on any topic when venturing into a complex world filled with YouTube experts. Let’s avoid spending our valuable educational dollars by putting the subjective activism cart before the horsepower of true knowledge. We need to better train teachers with the ability to deliver curriculum focused on the broader understanding of scientific principles and processes.

    It is our hope that policymakers and those responsible for curriculum development will examine these considerations. It is sad to witness a college freshman with aspirations to become a medical doctor that doesn’t possess the basic skills to pass general chemistry. A student retorts, “I don’t understand why I’m failing; I got an A in all my high school science classes.” Such gaping disconnects between the knowledge and skills needed to succeed and the curricula being taught must be resolved.

    The data is clear that our education system is not delivering for our students, and we should no longer abandon the scientific method of observing, hypothesizing, experimenting, and analyzing when it comes to our students. The predominate hypothesis has been that better education is achieved with accelerated funding and recently removing results-based metrics. The scholar Thomas Henry Huxley pointedly captures our concern, “The great tragedy of Science,” he wrote, is “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

    Will our educational system allow us to reach the next adventure and witness new planetary horizons? It is interesting that when James Lovell was an astronaut for both the Apollo 8 and Apollo 13 missions, being part of the triumph and first to leave Earth’s orbit and then confronting the challenges that Apollo 13 faced, he used a slide rule.

    Diane Douglas is the former Arizona superintendent of public instruction; Peter Pingerelli is an associate adjunct in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at Grand Canyon University. Ms. Douglas served on the Peoria U.S.D. governing board 2005-2012; president 2008 and 2009; Dr. Pingerelli serves on the West-MEC governing board 2017-present and is the current board chairman. Both are also on the Board of Directors for the Earth and Space Expedition Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

    Where Does Arizona’s K-12 Education System Rank Nationally?

    Where Does Arizona’s K-12 Education System Rank Nationally?

    By John Huppenthal |

    Mainstream media loves to disparage Arizona’s kindergarten through 12th grade education system. State rankings are often the source of this disparagement, invariably ranking Arizona 47th, 48th, or 49th.

    Over the past year, U.S. News and World Report ranked New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut as the top education states in the nation, first through third, respectively. Next, WalletHub ranked these same three states as the top three states in the nation. Then, along comes an organization called Scholaroo also ranking Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut as the top three K-12 education states in the nation.

    They all agree on the three states with the top rankings, but where do they rank Arizona? They rank Arizona respectively, 47th, 48th, and 50th. That would seem pretty definitive.

    But do these three states really have better schools than Arizona? Both U.S. News and WalletHub seem to think so . But is their ranking based on science? Are they correct? Are they completely out of whack? Let’s check their analysis.

    The U.S. Department of Education performs the National Assessment of Educational Progress, spending over $100 million per year to measure the performance of the U.S. K-12 system. The National Assessment is based on a random sample of over 3,000 students in each state. This sample is pulled once every two years.

    U.S. News, WalletHub, and Scholaroo each make a fundamental error in the way they compare states. Because Connecticut is 75% White and 42% college educated, they are comparing the test results of a White student with college educated parents with a minority student from Arizona with immigrant parents. That’s not science. That’s a joke.

    We can use the National Assessment data to make an apples-to-apples comparison. 

    Here are is the data for 8th grade math scores of Blacks and Hispanics for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Arizona:

    8th Grade Math ScoresArizonaMassachusettsConnecticutNew Jersey

    Arizona 8th grade math scores for Blacks and Hispanics (42% of our K-12 student population) are equal to or greater than all these states considered top three states by WalletHub and U.S. News

    In other words, if test scores are your measure, Arizona’s schools are among the very best in the country in educating Blacks and Hispanics.

    These are media companies. It’s not unusual to find them to be short on scientific standing. When you dig in to find out why the media companies get it so wrong, you find that the source of their error is that they are comparing a low-income Hispanic Arizona student with a high-income east coast White student and pretending that you can make a conclusion from that comparison about the quality of schools. No reputable researcher believes that. Each state has a different percentage of Hispanic, Black, and White students.

    We can expand this 8th grade math comparison to all 50 states. When we do, we find that Arizona Blacks rank 3rd, only a point away from first. Only two other states have 8th grade test scores for Blacks higher than Arizona. Arizona Asians rank 5th, Arizona Hispanics rank 14th, and Arizona Whites rank 6th.

    Race is only one factor you can adjust for. Several years ago, the Urban Institute did a more comprehensive regression analysis which also took into account parent’s education and family income as well as race. In that ranking, Arizona ranked 13th in the nation. Even that analysis is suspect. Arizona ranks 4th in the nation in the percentage of foreign-born Hispanics. The Urban Institute’s analysis did not separate foreign-born and native-born Hispanics and as a result, ranked Arizona lower than it might otherwise have been.

    We know that Arizona schools, strengthened by the nation’s most competitive school environment for 30 years, rank much higher than the mainstream media would let us know. And perhaps higher than the leftist think-tanks want to admit.

    The Evidence Shows That Arizona Is Funding Education at Historic Levels

    The Evidence Shows That Arizona Is Funding Education at Historic Levels

    By the Arizona Free Enterprise Club |

    If you have been listening to the left and their friends in the media over the last several years, you might be under the impression that conservatives in the legislature have chronically underfunded K-12 education. But this couldn’t be further from the truth, and the truly historic levels of education funding actually threatens their soak the rich tax hike (Prop 208).

    The reason we know K-12 is funded at historic levels is because there is a constitutional expenditure limit. Next year, we’re on track to blast above it. By billions.

    Their pivot has been to attack the expenditure limit, as opposed to acknowledging how much the state is spending. But taxpayers should be thankful for this constitutional protection. It isn’t outdated, and it isn’t holding our schools back.


    Business Group Calls For State Lawmakers’ Immediate Attention To Supreme Court Ruling

    Business Group Calls For State Lawmakers’ Immediate Attention To Supreme Court Ruling

    By Terri Jo Neff |

    Earlier this month the Arizona Supreme Court agreed with a lower court’s ruling that parts of 4 of the 11 budget bills signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey this summer are unconstitutional on procedural grounds. The reaction from business owners and community leaders was swift, with many left wondering when and how lawmakers will address the dozens of provisions dropped from those budget bills.

    Among those provisions was a prohibition on a county, city, or town from issuing COVID-19 ordinances that impact private businesses, schools, churches, or other private entities, including mask mandates. Other prohibitions would have kept K-12 schools from requiring vaccines with an emergency use authorization for in-person attendance and ensured public universities and community colleges could not mandate COVID vaccines and vaccine passports.

    The Arizona Free Enterprise Club (AFEC) describes the Justices’ recent opinion as “devastating” and “a big blow to the people of Arizona.” The organization has drawn attention to the uncertainty and frustration across Arizona at a time when the pandemic impacts are still being felt in the state’s economy, and as individual freedoms are under attack.

    As a result, the AFEC is leading the call for the Arizona Legislature and the Governor to immediately address the critical reforms that the Supreme Court struck down.

    “They must exhaust every option possible, including special session, to protect Arizonans from more COVID mandates and the bigoted teachings of Critical Race Theory,” according to AFEC. “But make no mistake, while this ruling is devastating, it will not stop the battle over these critical issues. There’s just too much at stake. Because if the uncertainty and frustration caused by these issues are allowed to continue, it would be the most devastating news of all.”

    Ducey Rescinds Mask Mandate For K-12 Schools

    Ducey Rescinds Mask Mandate For K-12 Schools

    By B. Hamilton |

    Parents of Arizona’s K-12 students are praising and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is slamming Governor Doug Ducey for rescinding orders that direct K-12 schools to require masks.

    The Governor’s Office noted that with teachers having been vaccinated early on, the decision to require students to wear masks at schools are up to school leaders.

    The governor’s action masking edict continues to provide K-12 school districts and charter schools the right to institute and enforce policies to mitigate against COVID-19 spread, including the use of masks.

    The governor’s action aligns with CDC guidance and rescinds a section of Executive Order 2020-51, issued by the Governor in July directing schools to require face masks and Emergency Measure 2020-04, issued by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) outlining requirements for mask usage in schools.

    Superintendent Hoffman, in her statement, released Monday, that the governor’s decision was “abrupt” and “destabilizes school

    Hoffman “encouraged school leaders and board members to work with their communities to make transparent evidence-based decisions to
    build trust and the safety of our schools.”

    Parents say they are doing just that and are now organizing to change policies on the school level. They say they will begin contacting school officials requesting the end-of-mask mandates on school sites as soon as possible.