STEM Students: Arts Improved Our Soft Skills

Dive Brief:

  • Six students recently spoke during the AWS Public Sector Summit in Washington, D.C., about how arts education and the soft skills it helped them develop are key to their success in the fields they’re pursuing in college, EdSurge reports.

  • One student, who studied network security at Bowie State University in Maryland, also acted in plays, which he said helped boost his ability to communicate with others.

  • Another noted that humanities courses, most importantly ethics, are key to those looking to enter tech fields so they can ground themselves in understanding how their inventions, research and discoveries will play a role in the world.

Dive Insight:

The push for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills in students led somewhat to arts education being downplayed in curriculum. Employers, however, have started speaking up, noting that soft skills, such as knowing how to communicate effectively, were missing in some applicants and just as necessary as technical knowledge.

Chief academic officers and administrators are often building curriculum from mandates put in place by state policymakers. But as EdSurge’s story noted, college students studying in tech fields have attributed their success to soft skills, as well, which educators agree are crucial. A 2018 Gallup survey found that 4,000 parents, teachers, principals and other education leaders believe soft skills are as important as academic abilities.

Educators, however, shouldn’t have to choose between emphasizing STEM learning at the expense of developing soft skills in students. Some groups, such as the nonprofit Project Lead the Way, which works with students as early a preschool and continues through high school, assess children on both the subject material they’re learning, as well as skills they’ll need when they leave school and enter the workforce.

STEM classes do teach social tools in many cases. Students have to be adept at project-based learning know how to work with others, collaborate, handle setbacks and share their knowledge when they succeed to support their peers. Ensuring all technical and soft skill bases are covered is possible, no matter the subject, though finding ties to the arts can ultimately help fill that need more efficiently.

By Lauren Barack

Published June 19, 2019

Donald Trump Signs First Major Education Policy Bill of His Presidency

In a watershed moment for his administration on education policy, President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, the first legislation Trump’s signed that makes significant changes to federal education law itself.

The legislation is a reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, a $1.2 billion program last overhauled by Congress in 2006. The new law allows states to set their own goals for career and technical education programs without the education secretary’s approval, requires them to make progress toward those goals, and makes other changes to federal CTE law.

Trump celebrated the bill signing at a “Pledge to America’s Workers” event on Tuesday in Florida designed to showcase the administration’s focus on workforce development.

In a speech at Tampa Technical High School in Tampa, Fla., after the official bill signing at the White House, Trump said the new CTE law would contribute to the “booming economy.”

Thanks to the law, Trump told the crowd, “More than 11 million students and workers will have greater access to better training and more jobs.”

Career and technical education is attracting new attention and support, but it’s also facing new challenges as programs try to evolve to meet changing labor force demands.

Early in his presidency, Trump approved congressional resolutions that overturned Obama-era accountability rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act and a separate set of rules governing teacher preparation. So this isn’t the first act of Congress focused on education he has signed.

But there has been little to no progress on revamping other major education programs in Congress, whether they’re Trump priorities or otherwise:

  • Lawmakers have repeatedly rejected a push by Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to create new federally funded school choice initiatives, such as a $1 billion public school choice program using Title I aid typically directed at low-income students.
  • Similarly, Congress hasn’t shown an interest in making dramatic cuts to the U.S. Department of Education like Trump and DeVos have called for in two education budget proposals so far.
  • Work on overhauling the Higher Education Act has stalled, even though a GOP-backed higher education bill awaits action by the full House. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., made an HEA overhaul a top priority at the start of the 115th Congress, but to no avail so far.
  • There’s been no tangible progress on revamping laws like the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and the Head Start Act that are long overdue for reauthorization.


The Trump administration made reauthorizing Perkins a priority this year, and dispatched the president’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump to Capitol Hill to push senators to approve a bill. Shortly thereafter, the Senate education committee considered and unanimously passed a Perkins reauthorization bill, which was written by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

Last week, the Senate then passed the legislation, and the House quickly agreed to a Perkins reauthorization bill as amended by the Senate.

Business groups, the National Governors Association, and education groups like the Council of Chief State School Officers praised Congress’ quick work on CTE legislation over the past month. However, advocacy groups like Advance CTE and the Association for Career and Technical Education indicated that they believed the reauthorization was a mixed bag—the groups worried, for example, that the legislation could lead to states setting “unambitious” goals for CTE, and more paperwork for school leaders to deal with.

CTE educators are tackling a series of tough issues. Tennessee, for example, is trying to close down “dead-end pathways” in favor of programs that teach more sophisticated technology skills.

And there are growing concerns that some CTE courses of study limit access and don’t reach a diverse set of students.

School's Out for Summer - And That's Bad News for Literacy and Math

It's the same story every fall when Iliana Rincon Ramos returns to school from summer vacation: Before the class can move forward, they'll all need to review what they learned last year.

"Technically, fourth grade is just a review of third grade, and fifth grade is just a review of fourth grade," said Iliana, a rising fifth-grader at Mary Ford Elementary in North Charleston. "It's just reviewing. That's what it feels like."

Students lose ground over summer vacation. Teachers know it, researchers have known it for decades, and education leaders in South Carolina are still trying to figure out how best to address the problem.

Toward that end, summer school programs and day camps are increasingly being asked to do more than keep children out of trouble. In order to receive and keep grants, many program organizers have to prove that they're either moving the needle or keeping students from falling behind academically.

Particularly in schools with high levels of poverty, the phenomenon of "summer learning loss," also known as the "summer slide," can set students further and further behind their peers. Research suggests that a lack of extracurricular activities or books in the home are partly to blame.

One analysis of the research on summer learning loss in the Review of Educational Research found that students' achievement test scores tend to decline by about one month's worth of learning over summer vacation, with sharper declines in math than in reading.

While middle-class students often improve their literacy skills over the summer, lower-income students tend to fall behind.

That meta-analysis came out in 1996. Twenty-two years later, the problem still vexes schools in South Carolina and elsewhere.

"Research is well aware of the issue, and as practitioners, principals and teachers are well aware of the issue. But it doesn’t seem to have a lot of political power or awareness," said Rachael James, program manager at the College of Charleston's Afterschool and Summer Learning Resource Center.

The approach to fixing the problem has been piecemeal so far in South Carolina, with different schools and districts trying out different programs. Part of James' job is to evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs, but, so far, most of her work has focused on after-school programs.

This summer, for the first time, she'll be investigating a summer program: Freedom School, a culturally relevant six-week program that traces its roots back to the civil rights movement. An internal review with a small sample size showed promise last summer, and now James is taking a closer look.

"The goal is ultimately to advance them, but if they hold ground, that’s great, too," James said.

This summer, the S.C. Department of Education is helping to secure state and federal funds for the North Charleston-based nonprofit organization Engaging Creative Minds to provide programs in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) for Allendale and Barnwell County students.

Elsewhere, the international nonprofit Save the Children has been working in rural South Carolina schools for years. The Education Department is also trying to secure federal funds for that group's summer programs in Orangeburg County, according to agency spokesman Brown.

At Iliana's school, they might have hit on a solution. In a partnership between the Charleston County School District and the nonprofit Charleston Promise Neighborhood, students from Mary Ford and Chicora Elementary meet for four weeks early in the summer in a program that's free for families, with breakfast, lunch and snacks included.

They spend the mornings in the classroom focused on reading and math. Students might spend time on computer-based assignments that tailor themselves to the students' precise academic levels; other days they might work on group projects. In Courtney Reed's classroom of rising fifth-graders Wednesday morning, students were collaborating on a television newscast, complete with cameras and a green screen. Along the way, they practiced their language skills by filling out "job applications" and conducting interviews with each other.

"The expectations are the same as a normal school day, but we want to make it more engaging," Reed said.

The afternoons are spent at EPIC, an enrichment program with a focus on science that the Charleston County district offers in many of its schools. They also take field trips, including a night trip to the S.C. Aquarium — the sorts of fun, educational experiences that students from low-income homes might miss out on otherwise.

Each program has its own small body of research to back it up. Last summer, for instance, the Charleston Promise Neighborhood had students at Mary Ford take the Measures of Academic Progress reading test at the beginning and end of the four-week program. They found that 63 percent of students either grew or maintained their reading levels. The rest fell back.

EPIC has its own body of research, too. While the program is partly focused on preventing the summer slide, the research focuses on the hazier topic of engagement. Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute surveyed campers in 2015 and found that the majority “reported increases in positive attitudes toward science, math, reading and writing as a result of attending camp.”

Iliana gives the summer program at Mary Ford a positive review. In her first week, she said, she was already moving ahead with division and multiplication skills. When she goes back to school this fall, she could be further along academically than she was at the end of fourth grade.

Plus, it's a lot of fun. They built a catapult this week, and it worked.

The year-round fix?
There is an elephant in the room any time educators talk about summer learning loss: This could all go away if schools eliminated summer vacation.

For the time being, that's not possible in South Carolina. 

Responding to a concerted push from some parents, high school athletic boosters and the tourism industry — which relies on teenage labor in the summer months — state legislators passed a law in 2006 effectively banning year-round schools except for special exceptions granted by the State Board of Education. The law also requires the school year to start no earlier than the third Monday in August.

Today, there are only three schools in the state operating on a year-round schedule, according to the S.C. Department of Education: The Academy of Teaching and Learning in Chester County, Henry Timrod Elementary in Florence School District 1, and McColl Elementary Middle School in Marlboro County. A fourth school, Cleveland Academy of Leadership in Spartanburg School District 7, operates on an extended-year schedule.

But even year-round school is not a silver bullet. In North Carolina, the Wake County Public School System started trying out year-round schools in the 1990s and has since adopted a complex "multi-track" year-round calendar at many of its schools. By staggering groups of students and giving them short "track-out" vacations throughout the year, the school system was able to fit about 25 percent more students in each school building while dealing with a population boom in the Research Triangle.

Designed for efficiency, the change did not yield dramatic academic improvements. According to district spokesman Tim Simmons, many students still lose ground academically during their three-week track-outs.

In the end, the length of a school year in Wake County is not much different than anywhere else in North Carolina — it's just arranged differently. If the goal was to prevent summer learning loss by changing the calendar, the actual length of the school year would have to increase.

"If you don't put more time on task, it doesn't matter what calendar you use," Simmons said.

The Problem With Hurrying Childhood Learning

When he lectured in the United States, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget would invariably get what he called "the American question" from a member of the audience. After he had explained various developmental phases that young children go through in their understanding of concepts like length and volume, someone would raise their hand and ask, "How can we accelerate a child’s progress through the stages?"

Baffled, Piaget would explain that there is absolutely no advantage to speeding up a child’s progression. The point of knowing the stages is to be aware of what stage a child is in, so that we can create the conditions and offer the guidance to help her move to the next one. It’s not a race.

One of the most insidious results of the testing madness afflicting education has been an emphasis on speeding toward a particular outcome—a reading level, a cut score—without taking the time to ask what is sacrificed in that rush. 

We need, of course, to pay attention to academic growth. It’s one thing for a child to be below grade-level or to be on a trajectory toward catching up over the next couple of years. It’s a fundamentally different situation when a child is virtually flat-lining in his progress, or is making such slow growth that if he continues at that rate, he won’t become a proficient reader in time to acquire the content and confidence he’ll need to thrive in school.

But I see too many kids who are hurried and harried toward the level they’re "supposed" to be on by the end of a given grading period, with too little attention given to the path they’re walking to get there. I see children begin to define themselves by test scores, grades, and how quickly they’re leapfrogging from one level to the next.

Here are two ways that teachers, parents, and administrators can take a deep breath and see past the timetables set by adults to the particular journeys of the children themselves. 

"We should be encouraging the children in our care to revel in their childhood, not hurry out of it as if children were no more than miniature, imperfect versions of adults."

1. Focus on the path, not just the destination.

Kids should like school. They should become strong readers, writers, scientists, and mathematicians, but they should also enjoy reading, writing, science, and math. 

This year, my district made a massive shift toward the Reading Units of Study developed by Lucy Calkins and others. Instead of spending so much time on phonics worksheets, textbooks, and numbered questions at the end of the story, kids now spend half an hour each day simply reading books they have chosen that are roughly on their reading level. 

That half-hour block is partly a time for my 1st graders to apply the many daily mini-lessons I have taught them—everything from strategies for figuring out an unknown word to thinking about how the characters solve the problem in the story. But it’s also a time for getting comfortable in a beanbag or camping chair, doing shrill voices for the wicked stepmother in Adelita, or giggling with a friend over Piggie and Elephant’s antics. 

My students’ collective reading progress this year has been remarkable. They have moved up an average of 5.6 levels on the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, compared to the district expectation of three levels by this point in the year, despite the fact that all 23 children are English learners.

But here’s the critical point about their progress: that growth is a positive side effect, not the end goal, of the block of time we call the "Wild Reading Rumpus." The true purpose of that reading time is for my students to come to love reading, so that they will lead richer lives—not just in the future, when they go on to college or a career, but in the present.

We adults tend to dramatically discount the present moment in favor of future outcomes. Yet childhood is a fleeting time. It’s like the Buddhist description of a human life: a bird flying in one window and flying out the other, before you have time to do more than gasp. We should be encouraging the children in our care to revel in their childhood, not hurry out of it as if children were no more than miniature, imperfect versions of adults.

2. Honor growth above proficiency.

Most kids at my school, where 99 percent live in poverty and 85 percent speak English as a second language, are reading and doing math on or above grade level by the time they leave 5th grade. But many of them don’t end kindergarten or 1st grade as “proficient” readers or mathematicians according to the benchmark level set by the district or the Measures of Academic Progress cut score.

Why? Because it takes time to learn English and to become a strong reader, writer, or mathematician. We have to give children that time. We have to celebrate every step along their steep path to proficiency, rather than holding up only the end goal—a particular reading level or test score—as the single outcome worth celebrating. 

I have a friend whose daughter has cerebral palsy. I asked him once if her disability had influenced his work as a high school teacher of struggling readers. He said that watching his daughter’s gradual progress toward developmental milestones had taught him to celebrate incremental steps his students took in their reading that were so small most teachers would not even notice them. 

I would love it if every 1st grader in my class finished the year reading "on grade level." But I care far more about two other measures: whether the pace of their growth has put them on a trajectory to get where they need to be, and whether they are finding pleasure and meaning in the many individual steps that make up that long journey. 

We took the MAP test in math last week. Most of the students reached their growth goals, and their collective growth was 111 percent of the "projected growth met" metric—despite the fact that every child in the class is an English learner who lives in poverty. 

When we celebrated their perseverance and hard work, I had children stand and be applauded not according to how high their score was, but according to how much growth they had made. Ailuk, one of my students from the Marshall Islands, had one of the lower scores in the class but she had made the third highest growth: 28 points higher than her score in September. My two students with autism, Annie and Armando, had middle-range scores but moved up the most: 35 points for Annie and 37 for Armando. 

If the only thing that mattered was the score itself, Ailuk would be considered a “low-performing” student, and Annie and Armando would be seen as average students. But if you look at how far they have come, these three children are excelling.

We are workers of gradual miracles. Gardeners know how long seeds take to grow. It’s hard work tilling the soil, nurturing the first fragile green tendrils, and staying vigilant when frosts or murderous insects threaten the seedlings' survival. 

Our job as teachers is no different. The work of sustaining a gradual miracle requires patience. If we can teach ourselves that hard habit, our students will grow. They may also learn to slow down, delight in the present, and take time to fully experience the many moments before the harvest. 


Justin Minkel teaches 1st and 2nd grade at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark., a high-performing, high-poverty school where 85 percent of the students are English-language learners. A former Teach For America corps member, Minkel was the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. In his instruction, he is focused on bringing advanced learning opportunities to immigrant and at-risk students. Follow him at @JustinMinkel.

Mathematics anxiety: separating the math from the anxiety.

Anxiety about math is tied to low math grades and standardized test scores, yet not all math-anxious individuals perform equally poorly in math. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to separate neural activity during the anticipation of doing math from activity during math performance itself. For higher (but not lower) math-anxious individuals, increased activity in frontoparietal regions when simply anticipating doing math mitigated math-specific performance deficits. This network included bilateral inferior frontal junction, a region involved in cognitive control and reappraisal of negative emotional responses. Furthermore, the relation between frontoparietal anticipatory activity and highly math-anxious individuals' math deficits was fully mediated (or accounted for) by activity in caudate, nucleus accumbens, and hippocampus during math performance. These subcortical regions are important for coordinating task demands and motivational factors during skill execution. Individual differences in how math-anxious individuals recruit cognitive control resources prior to doing math and motivational resources during math performance predict the extent of their math deficits. This work suggests that educational interventions emphasizing control of negative emotional responses to math stimuli (rather than merely additional math training) will be most effective in revealing a population of mathematically competent individuals, who might otherwise go undiscovered.

In Education, Most Immigrants Outpace Americans

IN 2004, THE LATE Harvard University political science professor Sam Huntington made the argument that recent immigrants, particularly Hispanics, weren't assimilating well into American society. He worried that the descendants of present-day immigrants wouldn't follow the same upwardly mobile trajectory as the descendants of earlier arrivals from Europe. Fears like these often stoke anti-immigrant sentiments, especially during a time when the percentage of immigrants approaches 14 percent of the U.S. population, according to the most recent data. But a new study indicates that the majority of present-day immigrants and their children may be making real progress toward achieving their American dreams.

The key appears to be education because higher educational attainment is associated with economic success, social status, better health, family stability and life opportunities. Generally speaking, the more years in school and the more degrees earned, the better.

Two economists from the University of Colorado and the University of Texas —Austin studied data from a monthly survey conducted by the Census Department and the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2003 through 2016 and found that U.S. immigrants are actually relatively well-educated. In a working paper distributed this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they documented that most immigrant groups either arrived with high levels of education or their U.S. born children quickly met or exceeded the schooling level of the typical American. A big exception to this pattern are immigrants from Mexico, who number more than 11.5 million and are the largest foreign-born population in the U.S. (Click here for a table of years of education by national or regional origin.)

"Overall, there's not really a problem with immigrant integration," said Stephen Trejo, one of the co-authors and an economics professor at the University of Texas. "By the second generation, the children of immigrants have more education than a typical American. The only groups that haven't caught up are a handful of Hispanic groups and they're sizeable. But it's not all Hispanic groups."

For example, male immigrants from Africa arrived with 14.4 years of education, on average, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma plus nearly two and a half years of college. That exceeds the 13.8 years of schooling of the average non-Hispanic white man in the United States. (First-generation African females arrived with 13.6 years of education.)

European males coming to the U.S. had a tad more education than the Africans with 14.5 years of schooling. However, in the second generation, African immigrants of both genders surpassed the Europeans. U.S.-born males with at least one African-born parent had 14.7 years of schooling; females had 15 years.

Other groups tend to arrive with much less education but leap ahead. Haitians, for example, came to the U.S. with roughly 12.8 years of school. But their U.S.-born children stay in school for 14.1 years (males) and 14.8 years (females). Jamaicans follow a similar pattern.

Indian immigrants start with the most education, averaging 16.3 years for men and 16 years for women. That indicates not only a four-year bachelor's degree but graduate degrees as well. India is now the leading country of origin for new immigrants, followed by China. (Mexicans have dropped to third place on an annual basis, but because of many years of high immigration, Mexicans still account for the largest group of foreign-born people in the U.S. with 11.6 million or 26 percent of all U.S. immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute.)

Chinese immigrants also tend to come well-educated, arriving with 14.9 years of school for men on average. Other Asian immigrants, including Filipinos, also arrive well-educated. Vietnamese follow the Haitian pattern, arriving less educated but surpassing the average American quickly with the second generation.

Hispanic immigrants are a more complicated story. Those arriving from South America and Cuba follow the same catch-up pattern, arriving somewhat under-educated, but quickly exceeding average U.S. education levels with the first generation born in this country. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are among the leading countries of origin.

By contrast, immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic don't fare as well. Nor do Puerto Ricans who move to the U.S. mainland. (Puerto Ricans, of course, are U.S. citizens, but were included in this study of immigrants' educational attainment.)

First-generation Mexicans arrive the least educated of all immigrant groups with fewer than 10 years of school, on average. That's roughly the equivalent of only a ninth-grade education. The second generation (the first born in the U.S.) jumps to 12.7 and 12.9 years of schooling for males and females, respectively. That's a giant educational leap, but still well behind the U.S. average. More troubling is that data show Mexican-Americans don't seem to take their education further in subsequent generations. Educational progress stalls.

But the true picture of educational attainment by descendants of Mexican immigrants may be more complex. Based on his analysis of related data, Trejo suspects that as many as a third of Mexican immigrants in the third generation no longer identify as Hispanic because of intermarriage. And descendants of intermarried families tend to be more educated, Trejo says.

Trejo's own mixed ancestry inspired him to pursue this topic. His father was born in America to low-skilled Mexican immigrant parents. Trejo's father was the first in his family to graduate from college. He married a Jewish-American woman of European heritage. Their son earned a Ph.D., which ought to push the Mexican-American education figures upward. But Trejo says that only two-thirds of people in his position self-identify as Hispanic on the survey forms. Trejo calls the third who don't examples of "ethnic attrition."

Trejo hasn't yet been able to calculate how much this "ethnic attrition" is understating the progress of Mexican-Americans. In a separate data set, Trejo found that it could amount to a half year of education. If correct, it might mean that Mexican Americans are still progressing and will catch up slowly. It could take four or five generations – a generation longer than the low-skilled Irish and Italian immigrants took for full assimilation in the 20th century.

Puerto Rico is another puzzle. Puerto Ricans come to the mainland with much higher levels of education than Mexican immigrants but they don't seem to progress much once settled here. For example, Puerto Rican men arrive with 12.2 years of education. But two generations later, the typical American man of Puerto Rican descent had only 13.2 years of education, well below the average for non-Hispanic whites.

Even if "ethnic attrition" explains some of the educational stagnation for Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, they're still not assimilating at the same pace as other ethnic groups. "Closing the remaining educational gap between Hispanics and other Americans should be a key component of any effort to hasten such integration," Trejo concluded.

This column was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.