Special Report
Education Funding

Race to Top Winners Embed STEM Projects in Plans

September 09, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read

Corrected: An earlier version of this story provided an incorrect number of grants that Florida will award to rural consortia of school districts for STEM programs targeting gifted and talented students. Up to two grants will be awarded.

Fueled by funding from the federal Race to the Top competition, winning states plan to pursue a variety of efforts to advance education in the STEM fields, from building a set of “exemplary” high schools in North Carolina to launching a statewide “innovation network” in Tennessee to designing a program in Florida targeting gifted and talented students from rural areas.

The U.S. Department of Education late last month announced the second round of winners in the $4 billion federal competition, for a total of 11 states plus the District of Columbia. The Race to the Top aims to promote what the federal agency calls “comprehensive, coherent, statewide education reform” across four key areas: standards and assessments, teacher quality, data systems, and turning around low-performing schools.

In addition, the department included STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—education as a “competitive preference priority” in evaluating state applications, with an emphasis on ensuring the topic was integrated throughout the states’ plans.

‘Anchor Schools’

That competitive priority certainly caught the notice of states. The winning applications contain a range of substantive plans in STEM, from improving instruction and recruiting more teachers to creating new schools and programs to help more students excel in those fields.

A key component of North Carolina’s STEM agenda in its winning Race to the Top application is the establishment of 10 STEM “anchor schools” to provide exemplary curriculum, serve as residency sites for leadership academies and teacher professional development, and be “test-beds for innovation.”

“We are looking at the STEM anchor schools as being critical in developing a statewide network [of STEM-themed schools] and to be the place that will serve as a laboratory,” North Carolina schools chief June Atkinson said. “Each will focus on a STEM theme tied to the economic development of a region.”

In Florida, the state will award up to two grants for rural consortia of school districts to develop model high school STEM programs of study for gifted and talented students. The state also plans to expand efforts to train teachers in those subject areas and provide STEM coaches to the lowest-performing schools, as well as design interim assessments in science and math, among other measures.

“We’re very proud of putting this together in a coordinated fashion,” said Mary Jane Tappen, the deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction, and student services at the Florida education department. “It’s not different pockets of good stuff; it’s threaded throughout our programs and efforts, and in four years, we should look pretty darn good.”

Federal Priority

As part of the Race to the Top application, states were asked to provide a “high quality” plan for STEM education. In all, states could earn as many as 15 out of a possible 500 points in the rating process by federal peer reviewers for their STEM plans.

To meet the competitive preference priority in that area, the plan had to address the need to:

• Offer a rigorous course of study in the STEM fields;

• Cooperate with industry experts, research centers, community partners, and others to “prepare and assist teachers in integrating STEM content across grades and disciplines, in promoting effective and relevant instruction, and in offering applied learning opportunities for students”; and

• Prepare more students for advanced study and careers in STEM, including by addressing the needs of traditionally underrepresented groups in those fields.

The Education Department also stressed that STEM would be evaluated “in the context of the state’s entire application” and that states should address it throughout.

Richard D. Rosen, the vice president for education and philanthropic partnerships at the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit research and development organization based in Columbus, Ohio, that has been an active proponent of STEM education, argues that the federal application set the right tone by emphasizing the integration of STEM throughout state plans and their overall reform agendas.

“It was not, ‘Describe your STEM program,’ ” he said. “It was judged by showing how does STEM education advancement factor into all of your application ... how it is aligned and cuts across everything.”

Mr. Rosen added: “You see all different versions of that across the winning applications.”


Winning states in the Race to the Top competition outlined plans in their applications to improve STEM education.

FLORIDA: Launch a state competition among rural consortia of school districts to build and implement high school STEM programs for gifted and talented students.

GEORGIA: Require all public elementary and secondary schools to add achievement on science tests as an indicator in determining adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

MARYLAND: Develop a new elementary STEM teaching certificate, with an emphasis on integrating STEM across the curriculum.

NORTH CAROLINA: Create 10 “anchor” high schools with a STEM focus to provide exemplary curriculum, serve as residency sites for leadership academies and teacher professional development, and become “test-beds for innovation.”

TENNESSEE: Establish a Tennessee STEM Innovation Network to advance education in the STEM fields and ensure a more coordinated approach across the state.

SOURCE: Education Week

Battelle itself was referenced in some state applications. In fact, the governor of Tennessee, one of two states to win in the first round of Race to the Top, signed an executive order this summer designating the Ohio group to manage the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network. It already runs a similar organization in Ohio. (Battelle also makes charitable contributions toward STEM education.)

The new network is intended to help ensure a “highly coordinated approach to STEM teaching and learning that spans the entire state,” said William C. Pinkston, a former senior adviser to Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen who helped write the state’s application.

In surveying the state landscape, he said, “What we saw was that Tennessee had lots of STEM education initiatives happening” in different parts of the state, “but none of them were connected in a way that we thought would make them more powerful collectively.”

Tennessee’s application outlines a range of specific plans to advance STEM education beyond creating the network. They include establishing new STEM-themed schools to serve as models in the state and providing expanded professional-development opportunities in partnership with state universities.

Also, like several other winning applications, Tennessee’s plan calls for expanding the use of the UTeach model, begun at the University of Texas at Austin, a program that prepares new teachers in science and math.

Mr. Pinkston, now the managing director for advocacy at SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education—a nonpartisan, Nashville, Tenn.-based group founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist—said he sees widespread support in that state for the need to improve STEM education, driven by an economic imperative.

“The future of this state is going to be in technical fields that are going to require a higher level of education in the STEM disciplines,” he said, “and this is something that everyone understands and everyone has accepted.”

Rural Areas

In Florida, the new program for gifted and talented students is designed to help meet the special needs of rural areas.

“Most of our state is rural and agricultural,” said Ms. Tappen of the Florida education department. “We have rural high schools that don’t have the capacity to provide unique programs for gifted and talented students.”

Part of the idea is to devise approaches that could be replicated elsewhere in the state or across the nation, Ms. Tappen said.

Meanwhile, Maryland outlined a variety of STEM-related initiatives in its Race to the Top application, including tripling the number of teachers in STEM fields facing shortages, aligning pre-K-12 STEM curriculum with college and workplace expectations, creating a Maryland STEM Innovation Network, and offering teachers new professional development through summer academies that will incorporate a STEM strand for elementary, middle, and high school teachers.

Also, the state’s application highlights plans for a new STEM certification for elementary teachers.

“In our application, we made it very clear that STEM was not stand-alone,” said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent, “that it was very much integrated” across the state’s efforts to improve education.

“STEM is extremely important in Maryland,” she added, noting the large presence of the aerospace industry, the biomedical field, and the military. “Many jobs in these three sectors are STEM-related.”

Stepping back, Mr. Rosen from Battelle said he sees Race to the Top as providing a “big boost” to STEM education. But he suggested that it’s not simply because of the influx of federal aid. The emphasis on integration of STEM evidenced in many of the plans holds great promise to ensure the efforts have staying power, he reasoned.

“The money is important, but the money will be gone in four years,” he said. “The goal is, use it to create new systems and things that will have a lasting impact.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week as STEM Plans Embedded in Winning Proposals for the Race to the Top


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