Every Student Succeeds Act Opinion

ESSA Is a Big Piece of the STEM Equity Puzzle

By James Brown, Anand Vaishnav & Jacob Waters — November 30, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Earlier this fall, President Donald Trump called on the U.S. Department of Education to direct at least $200 million in competitive grant funding toward expanding science, technology, engineering, math, and computer science education. Though the administration hasn’t detailed exactly how they would implement the funds, the announcement builds on a growing nationwide commitment to STEM education.

The president’s directive also parallels similar moves by dozens of states to prioritize STEM education despite flat or declining state education budgets. High-quality STEM education not only has the potential to foster curiosity and creativity in students, it is critical for U.S. economic growth. But both words and plans are insufficient without follow-through. To best promote student success in STEM, we need both adequate funding and implementation of smart and equitable policies by all states and the District of Columbia.


And states (and their educators) still have a lot of work to do. Take training, for example: U.S. employers report having difficulty finding qualified STEM workers. According to the STEM literacy nonprofit Change the Equation, job postings in STEM occupations outnumber unemployed workers by nearly two to one. We need to do better in creating a pipeline or retraining the unemployed.

Additionally, access to STEM education is deeply inequitable—and that is reflected in schools and in the workforce. Change the Equation reports that low-poverty high schools are four times more likely to offer Advanced Placement computer science classes than high-poverty high schools.

It is also well documented that people of color and women are significantly underrepresented in science and engineering occupations. This lack of diversity and a stark gender divide cannot continue, especially when the opportunities are there if we guide students toward the right pathways to reach them. It starts by giving all young people exposure to enriching STEM experiences to develop their interests.

The vital role ESSA plays in putting states' STEM commitment into action is clear."

So what are states doing to address this? The Every Student Succeeds Act provides more flexibility to states than its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, did. Under ESSA, states can spend federal education dollars and measure school performance and accountability to support STEM education. In a recent report for the education policy organization Education First, two of us—Anand Vaishnav and Jacob Waters—analyzed 25 state ESSA plans (17 submitted for the federal April deadline, as well as eight draft plans), and found that many states are taking advantage of that flexibility to address STEM learning.

In particular, 17 states are incorporating student performance on state science assessments into their accountability systems; 17 states are including career- and technical-education indicators in their accountability systems; and 10 states are prioritizing STEM in their federally funded after-school programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

The vital role ESSA plays in putting states’ STEM commitment into action is clear. With Trump signaling a funding directive to STEM education, he also shouldn’t forget about the importance of continuing to fund ESSA at 2017 fiscal levels, at the very least, particularly the sections that support training and development for effective educators (Title II) and provide student supports (Title IV). Both of those sections, which the Trump administration has proposed cutting, have major implications for STEM education. With sufficient funding in place, states need to implement these policies in a way that promotes student success, especially for low-income students and students of color. States should:

Direct more resources toward at-risk students. States that use student performance on science assessments in their accountability systems will have the data to determine which districts, schools, and students need additional support for STEM learning. Giving at-risk students access to resources like curriculum, laboratory supplies, and highly effective STEM teachers would be a huge step forward. After all, equity means giving all students what they need—not giving them the same things.

Build STEM career pathways in career- and technical-education programming. Though building STEM skills is useful in itself, states should coordinate with local industries so that students of all backgrounds can easily transition into a career after graduating from CTE programs. For instance, Tennessee has a strong model that directly connects its CTE programming with high wage-growth occupations in the state, providing career opportunities for students who most need them.

Use high-quality after-school providers that give students new opportunities and experiences. Informal learning experiences—such as hands-on experiments and trips to museums—can help students develop a lasting passion for STEM. Unsurprisingly, low-income students are far less likely to have those experiences. States should prioritize funding for after-school providers that provide effective STEM instruction while giving students opportunities they are unlikely to have elsewhere.

In an environment where resources are limited, the federal government, states, districts, educators, and families need to come together to get STEM right. Our students, and our country, deserve nothing less.

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Every Student Succeeds Act Opinion 20 Years Ago, NCLB Kinda, Sorta Worked. That's the Problem
NCLB's political success gave rise to a more complicated reality of lax academic standards and public cynicism.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Every Student Succeeds Act Biden Education Department Approves One Request to Cancel State Tests But Rejects Others
Officials will allow D.C. to cancel tests. They denied similar requests from two other states and approved less extensive waiver requests.
6 min read
Image of students taking a test.
Every Student Succeeds Act Republicans Tell Miguel Cardona His Plan for ESSA Waivers Seems to Violate the Law
The Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't permit the education secretary to seek certain data he's asking for, the two GOP lawmakers say.
4 min read
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, left, listens as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, center, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, left, listens as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, center, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/AP
Every Student Succeeds Act How Will ESSA Hold Up During COVID-19? Pandemic Tests the Law's Resilience
Lawmakers designed ESSA to limit mandates covering issues like how tests are used. Will that affect how well the law survives the pandemic?
6 min read