Chalkboard covered with math problems


Youth Voice: When the Push for STEM Hurts More than It Helps

Maggie Wiley

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

After endless tests and assessments, I was diagnosed during my sophomore year of high school with dyscalculia, a disorder that prohibits those who have it from understanding arithmetic. Struggling to read an analog clock in the third grade, still counting on my fingers in the sixth, and the need to take an algebra course three times in a row were all finally explained. The discovery of my disability was both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing, because I finally knew why I never matched up with my peers in math classes. A curse, because my high school is focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

Throughout my high school experience, students with a strength in STEM have often been advantaged, while I was swept under the rug because my love was for languages, two in particular. English—my home language, one I knew as well as the backstreets of my hometown of Cheverly, Maryland—and Japanese, a melodic language I grew up hearing as my older sibling watched episode after episode of Sailor Moon and Pokémon.

Fortunately, my school required language credits to graduate, so the year I discovered my math disability was the year I enrolled in a Japanese course.

The first day of class, I heard a very sweet Konnichiwa! I didn’t have time to react before I was greeted by Ma Sensei, a Korean woman barely more than five feet tall. My first impression of Ma Sensei was that she was silly and soft-spoken. I soon realized that she was also inspiring. I loved learning Japanese and gaining a broader sense of traditional Japanese culture, so I was seldom outside of her classroom.

Dyscalculia prohibits those who have it from understanding arithmetic. The disorder is as common as dyslexia, but less understood, according to The Scientific American.

I told Ma Sensei that I felt very lost in school and I had a deep feeling of not belonging in an academic area with so many people who were going to become researchers, scientists, and doctors someday. In that moment, Ma Sensei taught me my favorite Japanese phrase: Shoganai, which means, “It can’t be helped."

She took my hand and told me that even though I may not be able to help my surrounding circumstances, I can always put my life and my future in my own hands. So shoganai. Don’t cry over spilled milk.

While many of my teachers at the time advised me to take more Advanced Placement courses and to push myself further academically, Ma Sensei encouraged me to push myself more in a direction that I knew in my heart was the right path to take. Instead of enrolling in more STEM classes, I chose instead to pursue courses like AP English and American Literature, Sociology, Data Analysis, Theatre, and Child Development, courses that interested me and in which I knew I would excel.

In just a few months, I will enroll in Northern Virginia Community College. In the fall of 2019, I plan to transfer to George Washington University to study Asian Studies, study abroad in South Korea, broaden my language skills, and ultimately gain a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification to aide in my future career as an English teacher across East Asia. None of this would have been possible without Ma Sensei and my high school language classes.

Student in Laboratory
“The Japanese program that guided my life in so many crucial ways will be cut this fall to make room for more engineering and advanced math courses.”

STEM is a great path for many students—opening the door for many young people to careers in high-demand—but teachers, administrators, and policymakers should remember it is not the only option.

As this blog from Portland University points out, “With the nation’s push toward STEM, some say we may have pushed too far, excluding other necessary skills and marginalizing funding and attention for arts programs. While STEM isn’t meant to exclude other subjects, in many schools, that’s what’s happened. Resources can only spread so far, and with increased expectations for test results and measurable outcomes, schools are hard-pressed to defend an allocation of funds to arts programs and the like.”

Sadly, this is exactly what has happened at my school. The Japanese program that guided my life in so many crucial ways will be cut this fall to make room for more engineering and advanced math courses. This is a move that reflects nationwide trends, with the number of elementary and middle schools significantly reducing language courses, according to this recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on Language Learning.

Ultimately, these schools aren’t just getting rid of languages that can expand a student’s global awareness and access. They’re doing away with caring adults like Ma Sensei, teachers who remind students that even if our present circumstances cannot be helped, the future should still rest in our own hands.

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