Before We Can Address the STEM Crisis, We Must Solve the Confidence Gap


“I’m not good at math.”

It’s routine to hear an adult utter these five innocent words while doing something as simple as calculating tip at a restaurant. It’s striking that self-doubting one’s ability to succeed in math has become par for the course for both adults and young people in our country. Science, technology, engineering and math are exactly the subjects where we need our students to succeed the most.

We’ve all heard the research related to STEM: high-skill occupations in these fields are among the highest paying jobs, demand will increase in the next 20 years, and a strong STEM workforce is critical to global competitiveness for the U.S.

But we’re coming up short on how to help more students succeed in STEM subjects. As a former teacher and a parent, I believe that we need to first address student confidence. Student success, especially in subjects like math and science, is not just a matter of cognitive ability and IQ.

When it comes to student achievement, non-cognitive skills like confidence, grit, and self-control can have a big impact. One study of fourth through eighth graders demonstrated that self-regulation was a better predictor of report card improvements than IQ. Non-cognitive skills can help students, particularly those at-risk of failing, to persist academically.

Since leaving my post as Governor of North Carolina, I’ve had great opportunities to visit incredible schools and work with education companies committed to helping schools improve outcomes. I am encouraged to meet so many educators who are creatively leveraging technology as part of their teaching. Recently, I observed a Hopewell High School Algebra class in Charlotte-Mecklenburg with students who had started out one to three years behind in mathematics.

The teacher was using a personalized learning curriculum and platform known as Agile Mind, which infuses non-cognitive skill development into the math curriculum by teaching traits like perseverance and diligence while solving Algebra problems. When they aren’t working in a group activity or one-on-one with their teacher or paraprofessional, students move through math problems at their own pace, with the program adapting to where they are struggling, ensuring that they receive personalized support. As a result, the students are not only succeeding in math—they’re also learning how to problem solve and build confidence for future success beyond the classroom.

Algebra I has historically been considered the “gatekeeper” of secondary and post-secondary success. Students who perform well in Algebra I are more likely to succeed in advanced math coursework, which is a strong predictor of college readiness. So building not only content knowledge, but confidence for students, is critical for their academic future.

Many students who struggle in math are not only struggling with solving linear equations; they’re also questioning their ability to ever do so. This lack of confidence can potentially be more damaging to students’ success than any other academic challenges that arise in their educational experience.

In the class I observed, the students could not have been more engaged and confident. They were collaborating with each other or working individually through math problems on a laptop, freeing the teacher to help students individually where they were struggling. Teachers told me that having the support of technology, as well as a clear guide for instruction and intervention, made it easier to manage their time for maximum student support and individualize the content for each student.

Success builds on success. Helping students build and flex non-cognitive skills can help start that virtuous cycle.

Certainly, reinforcing non-cognitive skills is no substitute for rigorous content. In fact, the research shows that students who are struggling benefit greatly from approaches that reinforce non-cognitive skills in tandem with intense study and instruction. Over the last several years, many states have adopted rigorous, high standards in math and science, which will help ensure that more students are receiving rigorous instruction in STEM content. This focus on college and career readiness is essential, because researchers estimate that by 2020, an estimated 65 percent of jobs will require at least some post-secondary education or training.

Today, schools are asking a lot of teachers and expecting even more of students. Meeting these expectations can be challenging. But I’m encouraged by the new tools being developed with the input of educators. Making it easier for teachers to personalize instruction—a hallmark of great teaching—and expand their focus to building non-cognitive skills can help turn the tide for struggling students and address our nation’s high failure rates in STEM subjects.

A former public school teacher, Bev Perdue served as the first female Governor of North Carolina from 2009 to 2013. She is the founder of the non-profit organization, DigiLEARN: Digital Learning Institute and serves as a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisors. 

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