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Expert Panels Tackle Ways to Improve STEM Education

September 21, 2010 5 min read
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Citing concerns about the nation’s long-term ability to prosper, two major reports issued separately last week put forward ideas to improve STEM education, but with decidedly different areas of emphasis.

One, from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, looks broadly at the need to improve STEM education for all K-12 students, with a focus on new federal actions to better prepare and inspire them in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The recommendations include establishing a national STEM Master Teacher Corps that recognizes and rewards strong teachers; supporting the creation of 1,000 new STEM-focused schools over the next decade; and launching a coordinated initiative to support a wide range of STEM-based after-school and extended-day activities.

The other, from the National Science Board, raises an alarm about what it sees as the failure of the U.S. education system to identify and nurture the next generation of high-achieving “STEM innovators,” and proposes steps for both the federal government and the nation as a whole to reverse the situation. Those include casting “a wide net” to seize, early in the academic pipeline, on all types of talent and to reach far more poor and minority students.

In Search of Innovators

A new report from the National Science Board outlines a host of steps to help the nation’s education system better identify and develop the next generation of STEM innovators.

• Increase access to and the quality of college-level, dual enrollment, and other accelerated coursework, as well as high-quality enrichment programs.

• Create programs at the National Science Foundation that offer portable, merit-based scholarships for talented middle and high school students to participate in challenging enrichment activities.

• Expand existing talent-assessment tests and -identification strategies to the three primary abilities (quantitative/mathematical, verbal, and spatial) so that spatial talent is not neglected.

• Increase access to appropriate above-level tests and student-identification mechanisms, especially in economically disadvantaged rural and urban areas.

• Launch a national campaign aimed at increasing the appreciation of academic excellence and transforming negative stereotypes toward potential STEM innovators.

• Hold schools, “and perhaps districts and states,” accountable for the performance of the very top students at each grade. That would involve monitoring the academic progress of the top 10 percent and top 1 percent of students in each school. Rewards would be provided for those schools and districts that demonstrate progress in increasing student achievement and closing achievement gaps, and penalties for those whose students are not making progress “consistent with their talents and potential, just as it applies to other subgroups of students” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

SOURCE: National Science Board

The reports arrived the same week that President Barack Obama, joined by business leaders and others, hosted a White House event to announce new developments as part of the “Educate to Innovate” public-private campaign for excellence in STEM education that he launched in November. (“Obama Backing ‘STEM’ Education,” Dec. 2, 2009.)

“Our nation’s success depends on strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of discovery and innovation,” he said. “And that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today—especially in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

One key conclusion driving the report from the White House advisory council—a 20-member panel of experts in science, engineering, and other fields—is that the government has fallen far short in its attempts to bolster STEM education.

“The federal government, historically, over the last quarter century, has really lacked a coherent strategy and sufficient leadership capacity for STEM education,” said Eric Lander, a co-chairman of the White House council, during a Brookings Institution event in Washington early last week. “There are programs galore all over federal agencies, ... but it’s hard to say it’s part of any coherent strategy. It’s hard to say that many of them have been historically targeted toward the kind of catalytic efforts that have the potential to truly transform STEM education.”

Underestimating Children

The new reports and the White House event come amid strong and growing efforts across the nation to advance education in the STEM fields. Winning states in the federal Race to the Top competition, for example, are planning to use a portion of their grant money to pursue a variety of initiatives for such purposes. (“STEM Plans Embedded in Winning Proposals for the Race to the Top,” Sept. 15, 2010.)

The National Science Board—which sets policy for the National Science Foundation and serves as an advisory body to the White House and Congress—unveiled its report at a press conference in Washington last week.

“Far too many of our brightest students, and students with the most potential for future achievement in STEM, are overlooked and underdeveloped beginning at the early stages of their academic careers,” Camilla P. Benbow, a science-board member and the dean of the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said at the event. “We cannot afford to underestimate our children and young adults,” she added, arguing that doing so represents a loss both for the individual and for society.

The report defines STEM innovators as “individuals who have developed the expertise to become leading STEM professionals and perhaps the creators of significant breakthroughs or advances in scientific and technological understanding.”

Among the proposals the board sets forth are increasing K-12 access to accelerated coursework and enrichment programs; expanding opportunities for conducting “above-level tests” to identify gifted STEM students; and holding schools—“and perhaps districts and states”—accountable for the performance of the very top students at each grade level.

Ann Robinson, the president of the National Association for Gifted Education in Washington said the science-board report provides a clarion call for the education system, with its emphasis on the need to identify and develop talent, and to do so at an early stage in students’ academic careers.

At the same time, Ms. Robinson expressed some concern about whether the report would lead to the kinds of federal investments she believes are needed, contending that the federal government has fallen far short on this front.

“Nobody ever built a better mousetrap without capital, both human and financial,” she said.

At the briefing last week, Ms. Benbow said the panel had not attached price tags to recommendations and emphasized that many of them would not necessarily require a lot of additional money.

By contrast, the report from the president’s council does include some hard numbers. In all, it estimates new federal funding of $1 billion each year would be required to implement all the new initiatives that the report recommends.

CEO Attention

At the White House, President Obama drew attention to a number of new ventures, highlighting in particular the launch of a new nonprofit called Change the Equation, with more than 100 member companies, focused on helping improve and expand corporate efforts to bolster STEM education.

Initial funding came from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and it has been matched by the nonprofit’s founding companies, which include the Intel Corp., Eastman Kodak, Sally Ride Science, Time Warner Cable, and Xerox.

“It is a CEO to CEO network, so we’ve got attention in these companies at the very highest level,” said Linda P. Rosen, the chief executive officer of the new group.

She said it will have a small staff, “no more than five or six people,” and will operate with a budget of more than $5 million in its first year.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Expert Panels Tackle Enrichment Strategies for STEM Education

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