White House Issues Inventory of STEM Education Spending

By Erik W. Robelen — December 15, 2011 3 min read
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If you think about the federal role in improving STEM education, odds are the first agencies that come to mind are the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. But while they are the two biggest players, plenty of other agencies also have some skin in the game, from NASA to the Department of Agriculture and even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A new report from the White House National Science and Technology Council provides the full picture. In fact, it’s billed as “the most detailed inventory of the federal STEM education portfolio ever compiled.” (And I have no reason to doubt this, though as some readers may know, there have been previous efforts to tackle the subject.)

The bottom line? The feds spend about $3.4 billion on STEM education each year (based on 2010 data), spread across 13 federal agencies.

Some experts have previously argued that there’s a lot of overlap and redundancy between federal STEM education programs, but this report from the National Science and Technology Council suggests the issue may be overstated.

“There is only modest overlap in investments and no duplication among the STEM education investments,” the report says. “That does not mean that there are not opportunities for better alignment and deployment of STEM resources.”

Here are a few highlights of the “who” and “how” of the spending:

• Of the $3.4 billion total, nearly $1 billion is spent on activities that target the specific workforce needs of particular agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Transportation.

• The remainder of the money is spent on broader STEM education matters, dominated by funding from the NSF and the Education Department.

• About $1.1 billion has as its primary goal targeting populations underrepresented in the STEM fields (such as African-Americans, Hispanics, and females).

• 24 investments totaling $312 million have the primary goal of improving teacher effectiveness.

• 80 percent of all the federal spending comes from three agencies: the NSF ($1.2 billion), the Department of Education ($1 billion), and the Department of Health and Human Services ($577 million).

• About 60 percent of all the federal spending targets K-12 education, with the rest directed at the postsecondary level.

To learn more about one agency’s work you may not know about, the Department of the Interior, check out this recent EdWeek story. It features a program operating at several national parks. Also, here’s a recent blog post about a new set of NSF grants aimed at “transforming” STEM education.

This new White House report was required under the America COMPETES Act. And the report is only the first step. The White House is also charged with developing a five-year strategic plan for advancing STEM education, which is expected out early next year.

UPDATE: (Dec. 16, 7:50a.m.)

In my haste to write this blog post yesterday, I neglected to probe one important question: What does the federal government have to show for its annual $3.4 billion investment in STEM education?

Unfortunately, while the White House report does address evaluations of the various programs examined, it never actually says what those studies reveal.

Of the 252 distinct “investments” that met the criteria to be included, 119 have been the subject of agency evaluations since 2005, with about half conducted in 2010 or 2011, the report says. And a wide range of evaluation tools have been used.

The report includes several charts on the types of evaluations conducted, whether a randomized control trial or a simple “pre-post gain” analysis. But it doesn’t say what they measure other than to “assess whether a project, activity, or grantee is reaching stated goals in order to guide ongoing improvements.”

Again, the White House report never gets to the bottom line of offering even a quick overview of what all the evaluations show. That’s too bad. Maybe that will come later?

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