Message to students: Effort pays off in math and science

Even in the checkout lane at the supermarket, Richard C. Cole can’t ignore his mission to change a mindset that causes too many young people to give up on math and science.

When a teenage clerk mistakenly overcharged him recently and told him she would call the store manager to figure out how much he actually owed, Cole stopped her.

“I said, ‘Why? . . . Let’s do the arithmetic,'” said Cole, president and CEO of the Connecticut Academy for Education in Mathematics, Science & Technology. “She said, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.'”

With Cole’s help, the young woman fixed the error, but Cole says the incident illustrates an underlying factor in students’ disappointing performance in math and science.

Many students, he said, are unwilling to tackle challenging subjects, lack confidence, or simply don’t understand how math and science are relevant to their lives and won’t make the effort, he said.

“They need to recognize they need to be engaged in their own learning,” said Cole.

While many of the nation’s efforts at school reform focus on teachers, curriculum, testing and school reorganization, a statewide coalition led by the Middletown-based academy is launching a campaign that zeroes in on students themselves.

“No one has talked about the students. It’s all been about schooling. It’s not been about learning,” says Cole, an affable former schoolteacher. “Where has the conversation been with the children about their responsibility to learn and that learning is not a spectator sport, it’s a participant sport?”

The five-year campaign, known as CONNverge, will focus on enlisting parents, educators and community leaders to motivate students, emphasizing “that they are capable, with effort, to learn and apply challenging and engaging mathematics and science to secure their future in the modern world.” A 15-member steering committee includes representatives of education agencies, businesses, parent and student groups and science organizations.

With support from the GE Foundation and Northeast Utilities, the academy will work with youth organizations, conduct focus groups, examine research, collect data, and develop strategies to spur student interest in math and science.

From the Obama administration to various state education agencies, school reformers have called for more attention to science and math, but student performance in those areas has been spotty.

In Connecticut, for example, slightly less than half of the state’s 10th-graders met the state goals in math and science this year. On a U.S. Department of Education science test 2005, only 29 percent of the nation’s eighth-graders and 18 percent of high school seniors scored at or above a proficient level.

The issue gained new urgency this week with the release of results of a 2009 international study of 15-year-olds in 34 countries. American students ranked 17th in science and 25th in mathematics, falling well behind students from nations such as South Korea, Finland and Canada.

For Cole, one of the most disturbing statistics is the large number of high school graduates requiring remedial work when they enroll in college.

More than 70 percent of students in Connecticut’s community college degree programs are in need of remedial math or English, as are nearly two-thirds of students in the Connecticut State University System, according to a recent report by the state’s P-20 Council, a group of business and education leaders studying education and workforce issues.

“The issue is more than having kids take algebra, algebra 2 and geometry,” Cole said. “Do they know the material? It’s not what grades they get; it’s how much they know.”

Organizers of the CONNverge campaign point to student motivation as a crucial factor, citing reports such as a survey of high school teachers earlier this year by Scholastic Inc. In that survey, about half of the respondents listed a lack of motivation as the single most likely reason students leave school unprepared for college work.

Among the experts cited by CONNverge is Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, who says some students thrive on challenge while others, even some of the smartest ones, see it as a threat that can unmask their flaws.

Many adolescents “mobilize their resources, not for learning, but to protect their egos. And one of the main ways they do this…is by not trying,” Dweck writes in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” She encourages educators and parents to foster a “growth mindset” to help students understand the benefits of hard work and persistence.

A key element of the academy’s campaign is enlisting adults in the effort to spark student interest. “We’re talking about aunts and uncles and grandparents,” Cole said. The academy expects to announce a partnership with a local community where strategies to promote student engagement will be pilot tested. The community has not yet been named.

One goal of CONNverge is to make students aware of the opportunity for good careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, often referred to as STEM.

“How many people think of an accountant as a STEM job?” Cole said. “Who does more mathematics than an accountant?”

Cole, who once taught social studies in Colorado and later worked in corporate jobs at Pratt & Whitney and United Technologies Corp., has been a passionate advocate for improving science and math education since joining the Connecticut Academy for Education as its first executive director nearly two decades ago.

“I am a believer in what Richard Cole is trying to accomplish,” said Fred Myers, a former physics teacher who ran a workshop to help launch CONNverge this fall.

“I believe the structural things we do in schools sort of take a back seat to motivation,” said Myers, director of science education in the Glastonbury public school system. “That’s not to diminish the importance of a good, coherent science curriculum…[but] the overriding thing is student motivation.”

He added, “I think everyone needs to work hard, no matter how smart they are. Effort really is the message we need to deliver. Teachers need to deliver it, parents need to deliver it, the media need to deliver it.”

It is the same message Cole wants young people to hear in schools, at home, or in a supermarket checkout lane.

“Work hard. You can understand this. You can deal with this…but you’re going to have to work at it,” he says. “It’s not going to come to you because you sit there and say, ‘I can’t get it.'”