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A Conversation with Vince Stewart, Executive Director, California STEM Network
Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy
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February 3, 2020
On working in education, and the power of equity
I’ve spent the last 20+ years working in public education advocacy and policy, and the through line in all of it has been a focus on equity and access.
As a person of color and the first in my immediate family to graduate college, I am deeply aware of the power and value of an education. I saw the damage that not completing high school had on members in my community and family, and my own education has had a profound impact on who I am today.
Professionally, issues of equity and access emerged fairly early in my career – my first job in education was with the California School Boards Association working on issues related to charter schools and addressing the needs of students who weren’t being well-served by traditional public schools.
I did similar work when I moved to the University of California (UC), where the focus was on how the UC could work in partnership with the K-12 system to increase representation of students of color and students from low-income communities, while also raising their rates of college completion. I enjoyed this work immensely and had the opportunity to represent the entire system, as well as the UC Davis campus. In fact, I planned to stay with the UC long-term and envisioned myself earning a Masters and Ph.D during my tenure there.
But then I got a call from the Schwarzenegger Administration about a job that I could not pass up. I had never worked on the ‘inside’ before and ended up spending about two-and-a-half years as the assistant secretary for higher education, through the end of the Governor’s second term.
I returned to the UC in a slightly different role– working with the individual campuses on their advocacy programs and finding ways to leverage their strategies to drive the University’s agenda – but soon thereafter made a move into philanthropy at the James Irvine Foundation. My time at the Foundation was a tremendous learning opportunity: I was supporting programs that I’d seen in action (and known were in need of additional resources), but also taking risks by funding ideas in which I saw potential. This is not to say that they were all successes, but failure was part of the equation and the key was to learn from those missteps.
Nearly four years ago, I landed at the California STEM Network (and Children Now), but not before I did another stint in Sacramento, with the Brown Administration as a vice chancellor for community colleges. At the time, there was a resurgence in community college investments from the state, with the goal of transforming student support and success. And what many people may not realize is that issues of equity and access have the most impact on the community colleges – 70 percent of high school graduates who go to college start with community college.
On what’s exciting about the work
In addition to continuing to focus on equity (particularly with regards to access to content and quality of instruction), what excites me the most is the reaction that I get from people in the field – these are folks who are working really hard every day at a school, a district, or a non-profit organization supporting teachers and/or students. And for them to know that there is someone who is working to support their needs, and advocate on their behalf, is really meaningful. There’s a tremendous satisfaction in that for me personally, knowing that our work here has such an impact on these individuals, as well as education community as a whole.
On some of the challenges in the field
The greatest challenges are ensuring:
- That we take advantage of the opportunity that we have right now when it comes to STEM education. We know this conversation has a finite timeline as there are so many competing priorities among policymakers, so we need to move with a sense of urgency when we have people’s attention to make an impact; and
- Moving quickly does not impact our ability to execute fully on the things we need to accomplish. For example, we’ve adopted Common Core math, Next Generation Science Standards and computer science standards, but we need to implement these changes thoroughly and make certain that we aren’t going a mile wide and an inch deep.
On the critical importance of STEM education, and common misconceptions
STEM education can help move disenfranchised people out of poverty – it can truly be an equalizer – which is why diversifying and expanding the field is so important. A STEM education teaches children how to be critical thinkers and enables them to not only understand the world around them, but ask questions when they don’t and probe to find answers.
As the state has adopted more rigorous education content standards, and we’ve seen teachers move into the role of facilitating students’ education, rather than lecturing from the front of a classroom, critical thinking skills, which are the basis for a STEM education, are all the more crucial. It’s also important to note that the skills STEM students develop are often more hands on and relevant to them that other subjects; they can be contextualized immediately and capture the imagination of students so that they engage with learning in new and exciting ways.
There’s a perception that STEM education is best suited for kids who have identified at a young age that they want to go into a STEM career, or that they have an affinity of a STEM subject, but all kids need it. All kids are curious, and they all need strong critical thinking skills. STEM education is not just essential for educating the next generation of engineers and scientists, but rather for everyone who needs to compete and thrive in our 21st century economy.
On 2020 goals
My goals really fall into two buckets: policy and organizational.
On the policy side, I’m really focused, as is the rest of the STEM team here, on teachers. Specifically, how do we put mechanisms in place that will not only attract and recruit the best STEM teachers in California, but also retain them. And one of the key aspects to retention is support and development – we need to make sure that we’re providing STEM teachers with support throughout their careers, so that they can better support and educate their students.
Organizationally, my 2020 focus is on sustainability. In addition to the California STEM Network (CSN), there are 11 regional STEM networks throughout the state. The CSN provides guidance to these regional networks in their policy and advocacy efforts, but there are limited resources available to support these networks more broadly and many of them are led by local folks who are contributing their time outside of existing commitments and fulltime jobs. We need to identify and establish a sustainable model through which the networks can grow, and really that means finding groups or organizations that will be champions for STEM education and make it a priority.
On life outside of work
<Laughs> Well after this, I’ll be shuttling my daughters [ages 14 and 17] from one activity to another, but I suppose that’s just part of being a parent.
I really love music, though I don’t play any instruments. And my taste is pretty eclectic – ranging from classical to country to blues – so I’d have a tough time narrowing down a favorite band or musician, but BB King is definitely in my top five.