The Importance of STEM In The Early Grades

Our guest author today is Stan Litow, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs at IBM, President of the IBM Foundation, and a member of the Shanker Institute's board of directors.

This is a difficult year for city and state leaders. They are struggling mightily with how to cope with both declining revenues and escalating costs, resulting in painful short term decisions about what to cut, how to cut, and ways in which basic or vital services can be maintained. Sadly, we have heard far too little these days about where to invest and how to invest in order to produce longer term benefit and mitigate longer term costs.

As people focus on education, it has been common wisdom that business leaders and those concerned with the bottom line have an interest in education too, but that interest is focused solely on STEM, or Science Technology, Engineering and Math. And that focus is placed on the later grades such as middle and high schools. It is undeniable that STEM is important, especially if we are to nurture the next generation of innovators. To do so, we must invest more creatively to improve teacher quality and student outcomes. But we can not address these challenges by limiting our focus to secondary education. While career pathways are great motivators for teenagers and young adults, we simply can not wait until high school - or even middle school - to prepare students and capture their imaginations. We must start earlier, much earlier. In that effort, early childhood education is vitally important.

I say this as a business leader at IBM, where we have just announced plans to create a STEM focused school encompassing grades 9 through 14, in which students would graduate with an AAS degree. Working with CUNY and the Department of Education in New York, we'll provide an enhanced, rigorous curriculum, workplace learning, mentorships and project based instruction that prepares students for good-paying careers in Information Technology. We've also launched "Transition to Teaching," to give our employees who wish to teach science and math as a second career the funds they need to take courses to become a fully licensed teachers, as well as leaves of absence to do their practice teaching. We've created tools to help students, teachers and parents incorporate science into their classrooms, in addition to electronic mentor tools to help thousands of our employees help children in public schools and summer camps encourage young girls to embrace science. But - and this is a big but - businesses, public officials and the public who neglect the intrinsic value of early childhood education do so at their peril.

I don't need to recap the reams of research that has documented, over several decades, the significant return on investment from high quality early childhood education. And the focus must be on high quality. Children engaged in quality HeadStart and quality pre K programs - those that offer best practices - are clearly more likely to have better academic outcomes and higher life time wages.

In addition to all we do in the later grades, IBM has been engaged in large scale efforts to improve education in early grades for well over a decade. Working closely with educators, we created Kidsmart, a unique program to help children ages 3 through 7. It features the creation and contribution of over 50,000 specially designed early childhood computer learning centers, with model software and training tools for children, teachers and parents, along with a children's operating system. The program has very encouraging evaluation results and it has achieved wide acceptance. It is very effective in helping very young children to develop a love for science and technology. A second program, called Reading Companion, also is focused on young learners. It uses high quality voice recognition technology to help non literate children learn to read. It also assists teachers by helping to diagnose children's learning and literacy issues, and provides professional development tools and supports to help them. Last year, this program assisted over 150,000 young children with their reading.

Both of these programs are designed, contributed and supported by IBM. Our contributions to these programs over the last decade have totaled over $100 million, and thousands of our employees have supported it with their volunteer effort.

But, no level of private donation, however well motivated, can substitute for intelligent and sustained support for public schools. All private support for K-12 education in the US, however vital, accounts for no more than one percent of total spending. We need to come up with creative ways to save our schools’ resources so that investments in STEM education and high quality early grade education can be realized. This is not to say that we don't need to support new efforts and changes in what we are currently doing, but disinvestment without a plan or strategy is being penny wise and pound foolish.

There are other ways to save money in public education without compromising the core instructional programs that deserve our urgent attention. For example, why does every local school district need to route buses, purchase supplies, manage payroll systems, or manage data centers? This is not what people mean by local control. These management and operational functions are not needed at every local and duplicative level. Managing them at the state level would yield savings in the billions of dollars, which might prevent cuts and preserve vital services.

This is the 100th Anniversary of IBM. As a company, we have a long history of engagement in efforts vital to our nation's competitiveness, from providing the operations and management support for the creation of Social Security in the 1930's, to the technology support for the space program that put a man on the moon in the 1960's. We understand the very real pressures facing our cities and states. These are very difficult times. But we can't retreat on our commitments to quality education, or foolishly abandon our understanding that wise investment in high quality early childhood education need not cost money, but could in fact save money. We need to apply our best thinking and support for saving funds in the ways that hurt our children the least, and spend money on those that benefit children and our nation the most.


All important curricula have trickled down to the elementary level and have crowded out anything that is no longer considered higher order thinking (HOT) topics. As a result, we have fifth graders who cannot cut with scissors, cannot tie their shoes, and cannot complete multi-step directions independently.

They CAN write the next great american novel.
But they do not know the difference between a noun and a verb; nor can they write legibly.

They CAN calculate the gross national debt of China.
But they cannot accurately measure with a ruler.

They can make and test a scientific hypothesis.
But they do not know when most major holidays occur.

We should be building a strong foundation that will empower them to participate fully in their own learning. This generation is poorly equipped and sadly lacking in the general knowledge and basic skills. When do we let kids be kids and give them the experiences they need to be successful in life?