Report: STEM Reforms in Needy Schools Eroded Quickly

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 23, 2015 3 min read
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A disheartening new report suggests that efforts to create STEM programs for low-income and minority students in Buffalo and three Denver-area school districts failed to live up to their ambition and promise.

Schools that planned to expand access to strong math, science, engineering, and technology courses wound up reducing offerings and cutting entire programs within three years. That’s despite financial investments and enthusiasm from school district leaders and the community.

At the same time, students in the STEM schools had negligible gains on state standardized achievement tests in science and math. In some cases, proficiency rates even dropped.

STEM programs have taken hold in districts across the country as a way of improving education in struggling schools.

“There’s a lot of talk about this, but not much data,” said Lois Weis, a professor at the University of Buffalo and a co-author of the report.

But Weis and her co-author found that programs were evaporating before they had time to make much of a difference. “Over the course of three years, we saw them basically erode every single initiative that had been put into place,” Weis said. “That’s too short a time period. Part of that is because of other pressures: Graduation rates, staying off the persistently low-achieving schools list [in New York]. But we give up way too fast on those kids.”

For “In the Guise of STEM Education Reform,” a group of researchers led by Weis and Margaret Eisenhart at the University of Colorado Boulder spent three years following eight schools — four comprehensive schools that were attempting to enhance STEM curricular offerings and four nonselective schools that self-identified as STEM schools. All but one had student populations where more than 70 percent of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch and were using STEM as part of school improvement efforts. This report focuses largely on opportunities in the STEM schools. (The question of what makes a STEM school is the topic of another report by Eisenhart several co-authors.)

The report examines opportunities available to students who were in the top 20 percent of their class in science and math at the end of 9th grade with an interest in STEM professions — those whose ability to enter STEM fields in college might be most affected by the opportunities available in high school.

The researchers found that in Colorado and Buffalo, communities created new buildings and invested in the programs financially. But over time, programs were cut or watered down, due in part to challenges balancing graduation requirements and STEM courses, accountability measures, and students’ preparedness.

In one school, specialized academies created to promote certain subject areas, including STEM, wound up creating scheduling nightmares for guidance counselors and students trying to fit in their required core courses and academy courses. By the end of the three-year period, the academy program had been closed.

At another, courses in subjects like physiology and robotics were advertised to students, but were never actually offered at the school. School staff members reported that students were either not interested or not prepared.

And at another, high-level classes in chemistry and physics are no longer offered at all. Another school focused on sciences that didn’t involve math because of students’ lagging math competency.

The researchers raise concerns that these diminished programs at smaller schools will result in widening opportunity and achievement gaps between less-privileged students and their more-privileged peers.

Still, she said, the researchers support the idea of using STEM programs to improve schools. “It’s a very hopeful version of reform. It’s actually a curricular, educational enhancement, unlike firing teachers, closing schools and moving kids around.”

And she said there are some STEM schools that have been more successful at maintaining programs than those profiled in this report.

“Our idea is not to say that this is failing,” she said. “It’s that as we engage it, we have to take into account a number of things,” including how to scaffold classes to meet students where they are academically while maintaining a commitment to offering a variety of STEM classes.

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