STEM to STEAM

Posted by Stan Rosenberg, Dan Hunter, Dec 27, 2016 0 comments

Are our schools adequately preparing children for the future?

Over the last several decades, people from all walks of life have demanded that schools not only improve but also provide evidence of student improvement. Mandatory, standardized tests have become the tool of measurement to determine how well students are mastering basic skills and subject matter in STEM fields. However, the basic skills tested are not the full complement of essential skills. Students need creativity and critical thinking skills. STEM must now transition to STEAM—science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts.

Creativity is an essential skill for today’s workers because both global and individual economic success depends on innovation. We must educate our children for technologies that haven’t been invented, to be used in jobs that don’t yet exist. According to a coalition of researchers, 81% of North American surveyed business leaders say that “creativity is an essential skill for the 21st century work force.” As noted in Forbes magazine, “the last two decades have seen nearly all businesses embrace innovation and creativity as central missions.”

Business needs a creative workforce to compete in the global economy. But our schools are locked into 20th century priorities. We are testing mastery of content when the Internet delivers content in 0.7 seconds. If the only public measure of a school’s progress is standardized testing, then schools have every incentive to “teach to the test.” Schools devote weeks of class time to test preparation; some school districts have even cheated. With limited resources—time and money—teaching the arts is dropped, diminished, or dismissed.

Testing establishes the educational priorities. So, how do you measure creativity? How do you test for the A in STEAM? In Massachusetts, we began discussing the concept of a Creative Challenge Index.

The Creative Challenge Index will be a measurement tool that tabulates and assesses activities that engage students in creativity. By measuring for creative activity, the arts will stand equally with STEM, and STEM becomes STEAM.

Introduced in the Massachusetts House and Senate Joint Economic Development Committee, the Creative Challenge Index was based on the premise that creativity is a practice, not a gift; that we are all endowed with the imagination that leads to creativity; and that arts education is the most efficient, effective and fun creative practice anywhere.

Most educational tests measure outcomes—answers are compared to an accepted right or wrong standard. But creativity is a subjective assessment, and creative outcomes are subjective and variable, so how can there be a right or wrong answer? Instead, we can measure “inputs,” a common practice in business and health. For example, the Center for Disease Control surveys activities and behavior (inputs) to assess public health (outcomes) in demographic subsets such as youth-at-risk, pre-natal health, and the elderly.

Public health, like creativity, is difficult to define, ever changing, and affected by individual choices. The Massachusetts Creative Challenge Index sought to identify activities, behaviors, and tasks across the curriculum that foster creativity. Like CDC-surveyed behaviors, these activities and tasks will provide an Index score for each school.

The Massachusetts Creative Challenge Index legislation, adopted as part of the 2011 economic stimulus bill, established a commission to design an Index. The commission—comprised of business, education, community, and political leaders—worked for nearly nine months but failed to design an Index. However, their work did lead to a state-funded grant program to support the exchange and development of better teaching practices leading to student creativity.

The momentum in Massachusetts inspired Creative Oklahoma, an independent non-profit then headed by Susan McCalmont, to take the next step to advance the Creative Challenge Index concept.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin initially endorsed the concept as a workforce development tool. She appointed task force members—including her Secretaries of Commerce and Education—to design an index for Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Innovation Index was designed over 18 months by representatives of business, education, communities and government. The Oklahoma Innovation Index comprises eight actions that lead to student creativity—imagine (be curious), generate ideas, question, combine, risk (take chances), expand, predict, and classify.

In practice, teachers or administrators would tabulate the frequency and efficacy of class work that engages students in any of the eight actions. Measuring the eight actions is the equivalent of measuring inputs or, as the CDC does, measuring activities and behaviors. One teacher said that if the Index were in use, teachers would scan every lesson plan for ways to improve student creativity.

Supported by the Windgate Foundation in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, Creative Oklahoma completed preliminary field testing of the Oklahoma Innovation Index in 12 schools in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Creative Oklahoma is currently expanding its field trials into additional Oklahoma communities.

We live in a society that seems to value only what we can measure. Business schools teach “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This is a data-driven era. But, the data generated by standardized testing forces us to value content knowledge over creativity and imagination. Both are necessary.

Measuring and testing of our schools provides needed accountability—we have a right to know the success or failure of tax-funded education. There is a great need for creativity, but there is no accountability. The Creative Challenge Index plan establishes accountability through the measurement of creative learning.

Educational change takes time. The Creative Challenge Index will work to make arts education a priority. Massachusetts launched the change by developing the concept. Oklahoma advanced the idea by designing and testing an Index. Where will you take this strategy in your state? 

Stan Rosenberg is President of the Massachusetts State Senate and an Americans for the Arts Fellow.

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