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STEM Help Wanted

The Work We Must Do to Provide Opportunities for African-American and Minority Learners

I’m inspired by the life and writings of Nelson Mandela, who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” As CEO of DreamBox Learning, a company whose mission is to radically transform the way the world learns, I try to honor his vision for driving social progress through education. We do want to look at and celebrate the progress that has been made in education, but I believe it is even more important to sharply focus on what needs to be done to fuel continued and, hopefully, accelerated progress. This is particularly true for African-American, Latino, and low-income students who often reside in the least well-served communities. Members of these communities need to believe that they can and will meaningfully contribute to a highly competitive, global, and information-based economy when they press for and take advantage of better learning opportunities. While education cannot eliminate racial bias and intolerance, a personalized and high-quality education is the primary pathway for changing the game and increasing representation of students of color in traditionally underrepresented and high-growth sectors like STEM. 

While I celebrate the signs of meaningful progress in 2016 as cited by Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. during Black History Month, I am left with a feeling that we can and must do better:

  • The gap between white students and African-American and Hispanic students receiving high school diplomas continues to narrow.
    • However, what does a high school diploma mean for students of color in this age of globalized talent competition and information-based economies?
  • We’ve witnessed historic reductions in the high school dropout rate, led by African-American, Latino, and low-income students.
    • However, we should ask ourselves what tangible and employable skills do our graduates bring with them to the working world? Moreover, despite higher numbers of minorities graduating with highly sought technical degrees, their hiring statistics continue to lag behind their non-minority counterparts. How do we explain this when we know how desperate employers are to hire candidates with these very skills?
  • There are a million more African-American and Latino students in college today than there were in 2008.
    • However, is that enough to achieve gainful employment and a successful career track? What value does a college degree have for these students and at what cost? Black and low-income students borrow more, and more frequently, to earn bachelor’s degrees, even at public schools. And, Black and Latino students attend for-profit institutions at higher rates than other students, reports the Center for Responsible Lending, which increases the cost of their education.

Despite these recent strides, data from the Economic Policy Institute tells us how much more we must do to close opportunity gaps:

Black unemployment rates and educational attainment
College experience and degrees for African-Americans still does not guarantee full employment. Source: Economic Policy Institute

STEM is Where Skilled Professionals are Needed

What is true in the general workforce is also reflected in the STEM workforce: we have not achieved any greater levels of diversity than existed in 2001. The most recent U.S. New/Raytheon STEM Index shows a slight upturn in STEM-related education and employment activity in the United States. But the raw data show that gaps between the men and women and between whites and minorities remain, and in some cases, the gaps have widened. The results tally with a February 2015 report by the STEM advocacy group Change the Equation, which found that the STEM workforce is no more diverse now than it was 14 years ago. Another report last year by the National Science Board also found women and minorities remain underrepresented in the STEM fields. We can and must do better.

Rethinking Progress Rubrics

What we can see is that while some aspects of progress may be positive, they are insufficient. We need to change the expectations for progress so we can change what is of ultimate importance—adjusting the hiring statistics for the jobs we need to fill most—before we celebrate too much and too early.

First, we must bridge the digital divide. While there is no single approach to address the multiple issues facing Black learners, I believe that one of the key factors in providing equal access and quality education in our highly competitive and increasingly technology-dependent world is to close the digital divide, at home and at school.

Writer, broadcaster, and thought leader Tavis Smiley, has authored a new book, released in January 2016, The Covenant with Black America: Ten Years Later, that describes a national plan to address challenges to the African-American community. One of the contributors to the book, Dr. Michael McGuire of the University of Indiana School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) noted in an interview that the digital divide remains a hurdle to economic prosperity. Racial disparity is revealed in the percentage of households that have broadband, computer-based access at home that is crucial for applying for jobs or for college or doing homework. “The real divide is based in a ‘racial wealth gap’ that holds millions back from adopting broadband because a computer can rarely be purchased from their yearly income,” McGuire writes. “Until families can afford the basic technological necessities—a computer being one—and gain broadband access from home, a digital divide along class and racial lines will remain.”

While we have made significant progress, 21 million students still lack broadband for digital learning, and 23 percent of school districts do not have the broadband they need—much more needs to be accomplished in this area. I strongly endorse digital equity measures such as those of the non-profit Education Superhighway, and the Obama administration’s ConnectHome, which increase broadband and Wi-Fi to bring schools into the 21st century, and bring broadband to low-income homes.

Following through on the promise of ESSA. Another sign of progress to come for all students is the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that President Obama signed late last year. Once it takes effect in 2017, it should be a force for greater educational equity, particularly because it includes block grants for technology. As the president said, “With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamentally American ideal—that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the zip code where they live, deserves the chance to make of their lives what they will.” ESSA, in combination with E-Rate, should move us ahead in bridging the digital divide.

Learning to code. I believe everyone, young and old, student and worker, should have the ability to code. A promising young entrepreneur, Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, has taken action and provided young and pre-teen girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills in technology and computer programming. She has said, “there’s still a dearth of African-American women in science, technology, engineering, and math professions, an absence that cannot be explained by, say, a lack of interest in these fields. Lack of access and lack of exposure to STEM topics are the likelier culprits.” We should support Bryant’s efforts and make sure that her business scales. A successful Black Girls Code is tantamount to a more successful America.

Greater investment in next-generation learning. Once broadband is in place, the use of educational technology is a powerful force to unlock the learning potential of all students—and 2014 research tells us specifically that it is especially valuable for at-risk students. A deeply personalized, motivating learning experience that is student-driven, research-based, and designed for inspiration, engagement, and understanding is the way forward. At DreamBox Learning, we have seen that when students are informed about what is happening in their own learning experience, they have the power to shape decisions and shape their own learning pathways. Engaged students are more successful students.

Help identify ways to reduce college borrowing. There are myriad ways to reduce borrowing and choose the right college, and students need to be made aware of them. Counseling early in the high school years can forestall unreasonable debt and make learners aware of the kinds of opportunities available to help guide them into much-needed areas of study and jobs.

Focus on the types of learning that yield tangible skills. “Show-and-tell” isn’t just for elementary school students. I believe it is important to demonstrate real-world skills as part of the learning and job-seeking process. Provide opportunities for learners and job seekers to showcase their skills. Think of it as a portfolio similar to those used by individuals in creative fields, where in the same way, it represents how you think and what you can do, and not about your degree or where you obtained it. Provide opportunities for ongoing education. If our society is to prosper, we must cultivate lifelong learning in ourselves and in our children, in an interconnected and fast-progressing world where the only thing we can count on is change—and the ability to cope with it.

Supporting a future where tech leaders reflect the diversity of our country. The Kapor Center for Social Impact, founded by Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, is interested in social impact for communities that have historically been on the periphery of access to opportunity, participation, and influence in the United States. Freada Kapor Klein said, “I’m incredibly optimistic that this is an unprecedented moment for diversity in tech. I have not seen this level of sustained interest by senior people ever, and I’ve been at this for decades. Maybe this perfect storm of change in demographic and economic pressure, and a talent shortage, means there are a lot of strands that we can weave together and do something to really break through.” The Kapors are challenging notions of what is possible when organizations embrace diversity and when people of color are invited to lead them. Everyone wins when opportunity to cultivate and showcase talent is provided to people of color.

This kind of rethinking is the way forward. Let’s work together for progress and find solutions to help Black children, and all children, fulfill their potential and the opportunity to take their place in the 21st century workforce.

Watch for my upcoming Special Report on closing the digital divide for disadvantaged learners later this month.