NRC Calls for New Steps to Track Progress in STEM Education

By Erik W. Robelen — November 16, 2012 4 min read
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The National Research Council in a new report identifies a set of 14 “key indicators” to gauge progress in STEM education, including how much time elementary teachers devote to science instruction, the extent to which districts are adopting instructional materials aligned to the common-core standards in math and recent guidelines for new science standards, and the level of teachers’ STEM content knowledge.

The indicators are intended to serve as a framework for Congress and relevant federal agencies to create and implement a “national-level monitoring and reporting system.”

The report, crafted by a panel of experts, argues that when considered together, this set of indicators has “the potential to provide insights into key elements of the K-12 education system in STEM that are difficult to glean from current data-collection systems.”

Other indicators identified in the report include:

• number of, and enrollment in, different types of STEM-focused schools and programs in districts;

• extent of teacher participation in STEM-specific professional-development activities;

• inclusion of science in federal and state accountability systems;

• amount of state and district staff dedicated to supporting science instruction; and

• federal funding for STEM-focused research (in keeping with priorities previously spelled out by the NRC).

Data for most of the indicators, the report says, “are, or could be, available through existing surveys administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, although those data sources have limitations that should be considered in light of the goals of the proposed monitoring system.” It notes that several of the indicators require new kinds of data collection, changes in the frequency of that collection, or further research and conceptual development.

The report comes on the heels of the release in 2011 of the NRC publication, “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” That report outlined three broad goals for K-12 education in the STEM disciplines. First, increase the number of students who pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields, with special attention to women and minorities. Second, expand the “STEM-capable” workforce and broaden participation of women and minorities in that workforce. And third, improve science literacy for all students, including those who do not pursue STEM-related careers.

The new report, issued yesterday, essentially provides a set of measures to track progress in accomplishing those goals, and are pegged to particular recommendations in the earlier document.

One specific recommendation from that earlier report was for districts to devote adequate time and resources to science education in grades K-5. This came in light of concerns that science has been squeezed out of the curriculum amid federal accountability demands for higher achievement in reading and math.

The new NRC report proposes two indicators related to instructional time. First, “as a proxy for the value that is placed on science,” it suggests measuring the number of instructional minutes allocated per week by teachers to science in the elementary grades, as well as the characteristics of that time. Another, related indicator would measure “science-related learning opportunities in elementary schools” to better gauge the full range of what students are exposed to. It should include not only classroom offerings, but experiences outside the classroom (such as science clubs and extracurriculars) as well as out-of-school opportunities with science-rich institutions and resources.

Another indicator focuses on instructional materials. It would provide descriptive information about districts that have adopted materials that “embody” the Common Core State Standards in mathematics or the framework for new science standards published by the NRC. (A first draft of common science standards pegged to that framework, crafted with the direct involvement of 26 states, was issued in May.)

The panel proposes a “two-tiered data collection” for this indicator. The first tier would determine which curricula districts and schools have adopted for STEM education. The second tier would involve analysis by an “independent entity” of the extent to which the most widely used curricula include the “practices of science and mathematics” as specific in the common core and the NRC framework for science standards. (The common math standards, for example, contain a set of eight Standards for Mathematical Practice that should be woven across content and grade levels, which include making sense of problems, constructing viable arguments, and attending to precision.”

The NRC panel suggests this is an “opportune” time to put into place the monitoring and reporting system for STEM education described in the report.

“In this era of heightened accountability in education, the availability of and capacity to collect high-quality data are greater than ever before,” the new report says. “Moreover, with the advent of new standards in mathematics and science, the demand is increasing for data that measure the key elements of those standards.”

It adds: “An exceptional opportunity exists to collect baseline data as states and districts begin implementing the new standards in the coming years.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.