Many Authorized STEM Projects Fail to Get Funding

February 23, 2010 6 min read
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With considerable fanfare and bipartisan support, Congress in 2007 approved a bill to strengthen the nation’s economic competitiveness that features a strong emphasis on bolstering education in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And yet, many of the new education-related programs spelled out under the federal law, called the America COMPETES Act, have so far amounted to unfulfilled promises.

A program to improve math instruction in the elementary and middle grades, for instance, hasn’t received a penny, nor has an initiative that would send out bonus grants to high-poverty schools that show the strongest gains in math and science.

“It was a very ambitious effort,” said Jodi Peterson, the National Science Teachers Association’s legislative director. “The programs are on the books, ... but for the most part, [they’re] not funded.”

Even among those programs that are receiving federal aid, the amounts are generally well below what was authorized, analysts say.

‘Valuable’ Legislation

Funding is just one of the issues likely to be on lawmakers’ minds as Congress gears up to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, which stands for Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science.

The chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., has begun hearings on the measure and vows to get a bill through the House by the Memorial Day recess.

The pending reauthorization comes amid strong and growing interest in promoting and improving STEM education, including from President Barack Obama.

Power of the Purse

The America COMPETES Act of 2007 authorizes the creation and expansion of programs to improve math and science education, but many have never received any federal money. Examples from three federal agencies include:


Math Now: Improve math instruction in the elementary and middle grades by providing teachers with research-based tools and professional development.
Authorization: $95 million in fiscal 2008 and “such sums as may be necessary” for future years
Funding: $0 in fiscal years 2008-10

Math Skills for Secondary School Students: Improve math instruction in secondary schools.
Authorization: $95 million in fiscal 2010
Funding: $0 in fiscal years 2008-10

Mathematics and Science Partnership Bonus Grants: Award grants to the six high-poverty schools in each state (three elementary and three secondary) whose students show the most improvement in math and science.
Authorization: “Such sums as may be necessary”
Funding: $0 in fiscal years 2008-10

Teachers for a Competitive Tomorrow: Baccalaureate Degree Programs: Implement courses of study that lead to a baccalaureate degree in STEM fields and foreign languages with concurrent teacher certification.
Authorization: $151 million for fiscal 2010
Funding: $1.1 million in fiscal 2010


Pilot Program of Grants to Specialty Schools for Science and Mathematics: Establish or expand statewide specialty secondary schools that provide comprehensive science and math instruction.
Authorized: $30 million for fiscal 2010
Funding: $0 in fiscal years 2008-10

Experiential-Based Learning Opportunities: Establish a summer internship program for middle and high school students at the DOE’s national labs, with an emphasis on hands-on learning in the STEM fields.
Authorized: $7.5 million in fiscal 2010
Funding: $0 in fiscal years 2008-10


Math and Science Education Partnership: Award competitive, merit-based grants to teams of institutions of higher education, school districts, and supporting partners to research, develop, and implement pioneering ways of advancing math and science education.
Authorization: $123 million for fiscal 2010
Funding: $58 million for fiscal 2010 (plus $25 million in the stimulus law)

Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program: Encourage talented STEM majors and professionals to become K-12 math and science teachers.
Authorization: $140.5 million in fiscal 2010
Funding: $55 million for fiscal 2010 (plus $60 million in the stimulus law)

*The two NSF programs existed prior to the America COMPETES Act.

SOURCES: Congressional Research Service; Education Week

In fact, Mr. Obama this month rolled out ideas for reshaping federal spending on STEM education as part of his fiscal 2011 budget request, though some are outside the purview of the COMPETES Act.

One proposal would create a $300 million Effective Teaching and Learning in STEM program at the U.S. Department of Education, with more than half the money coming from a math-science program it would replace.

Despite the concerns about funding for many programs authorized in the law, James F. Brown, an assistant director of the American Chemical Society, maintains that it is making a big difference.

“Legislation is more valuable than just what it funds,” he said, arguing that the law has helped spark greater interest and investment by states and the philanthropic sector. “What the law did was cement a bipartisan, robust, and very broad consensus that STEM education and our investments in [research and development] are essential to American competitiveness.”

Mr. Brown, who along with Ms. Peterson co-chairs the STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of business, technology, and education groups, says a crucial question looking ahead is how best Washington policymakers can further amplify and leverage funding beyond the federal government.

Coordination, Effectiveness

Washington has long played a role in promoting STEM education. The White House estimates total federal aid for it from elementary school through graduate study at nearly $3.7 billion across more than a dozen departments and agencies this fiscal year. The National Science Foundation and the Education Department provide the most, at $1.15 billion and $904 million respectively, the White House says.

But there have long been concerns about the federal role. One is a widespread belief that federal agencies have failed to adequately coordinate their work. Another is how effective the programs are. A 2007 report mandated by Congress said that only a fraction of more than 105 programs it identified were found to have been scientifically studied and shown to have a “meaningful positive impact.” (“Federal Projects’ Impact on STEM Remains Unclear,” March 27, 2008.)

A driving force behind the COMPETES Act was a 2005 report prepared by the National Academies. It called for annually recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers. And the report urged steps to strengthen the skills of STEM educators and enlarge the pipeline of students prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or math.

The COMPETES Act authorizes a variety of new and existing programs across several agencies to improve education in the STEM fields, including the Education and Energy departments and the NSF.

One program that never got off the ground was Math Now, first advanced by President George W. Bush’s administration. It’s supposed to award grants to districts to improve math instruction in the elementary and middle grades, providing teachers with research-based tools and professional development. Authorized at $95 million for the first year, it has failed to see any money, despite repeated tries by the Bush administration.

Henry S. Kepner Jr., the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, laments Math Now’s fate. “Their heart was in the right place,” he said of lamakers, “but the appropriations part never got done.”

Robert M. Boisseau, a policy adviser at the American Institute of Physics, says one of his chief disappointments is that more money hasn’t flowed to two NSF programs reauthorized under the 2007 law: the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program, which encourages talented STEM majors and professionals to become K-12 math and science teachers, and the Math and Science Partnership, a research and development initiative to improve K-12 student achievement.

“These are two highly regarded programs with metrics that prove they work,” Mr. Boisseau argued.

The Noyce program, for one, was authorized at $140.5 billion for fiscal 2010 and received $55 million.

That said, under the economic-stimulus law, it got an additional $60 million in one-time aid, and its funding is well above levels prior to passage of the COMPETES Act.

President Obama’s budget request for the NSF appears to call for merging those two programs into a “teacher education” fund, with aid staying at $113 million.

What Is Working?

With mounting pressure in Washington to rein in spending, some analysts say the reauthorization is a good opportunity to adjust priorities across STEM education.

“You don’t need the same program in multiple agencies,” said Mr. Brown of the American Chemical Society. “That’s something the COMPETES Act can sort out.”

He added: “If we have flat budgets, we’ll never be able to scale up programs that are working unless you make decisions about which programs ... are not.”

Another issue that may be on the table is better coordinating STEM education activities across agencies. The House last year passed a bill spelling out steps to address that, but the Senate version died.

The Obama administration is trying to improve such coordination through a process led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said Michael C. Lach, a special assistant for STEM issues at the Education Department.

“We’re working very closely and carefully with OSTP … to do a much better job of coordinating things,” he said, “to get common evidence standards for what we think an effective program is, then start to collectively sort out what those programs are and ... map that into a federal strategy.”

Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget plan contains $3.7 billion for STEM education, an increase of about 1 percent from the current level, according to a White House summary. His proposal includes $1 billion for programs to improve math and science achievement among K-12 students, which the White House calls a 40 percent increase.

In addition to the president’s proposed Effective Teaching and Learning in STEM program, which includes support for professional development and instructional materials, Mr. Obama wants to extend the stimulus law’s Investing in Innovation Fund and set aside $150 million for STEM projects.

Mr. Lach said STEM education is a high priority for the president: “He has dedicated a lot of time to it, and you can see he sort of lights up when he talks about it.”

But Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., a leading champion of the issue, said he’s disappointed with the amount of money proposed.

“I don’t think his staff has really followed through on what he has said he wants,” Rep. Ehlers said.

The congressman said he’s also disappointed that Congress hasn’t funded many of the STEM programs in the COMPETES law.

“It’s hard to get people to get money for new programs,” he said, “when the payoff may be 10 years away.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Talk Bigger Than Federal Funding for STEM Projects


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