‘STEM Deserts’ in the Poorest Schools: How Can We Fix Them?

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 11, 2017 3 min read
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Students attending high-poverty schools tend to have fewer science materials, fewer opportunities, and less access to the most rigorous mathematics classes, like calculus and physics, than students attending low-poverty schools, a new analysis points out.

That means that they’re less likely to encounter real-world problem-solving that characterizes advanced work in those fields—as well as the most rigorous content that serves as a benchmark for beginning college majors or minors in those fields.

The report comes from Change the Equation, a nonprofit made up of business members who push for higher standards and policy attention to the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The analysis is based on surveys of teachers and school officials where the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, was administered in 2015. (As you may know, not all students or schools participate in NAEP; the independent federal exam relies on samples nationally and in each state.) High-poverty schools are defined by NAEP as schools in which 75 percent or more of students qualify for subsidized school lunches, and low-poverty as those in which 25 percent or fewer qualify.

It’s the latest in a series of briefs put out by the group mining the NAEP survey data for insights into the state of STEM education. This most recent analysis focuses on the disturbing inequities that low-income students face in terms of access to well-resourced schools.

Here, for example, is a statistically significant gap in the the percent of 4th graders who get to do science activities or labs (it shows up in 8th grade, too):

This may partially be a product of lack of access to appropriate facilities: Fewer high-poverty schools reported having space to conduct labs, or supplies and equipment for labs, than low-poverty schools at both the 4th and 8th grade levels.

And the gaps exist across content areas, too: Students attending high-poverty high schools report having far less access to Advanced Placement Calculus BC, which covers more content than Calculus AB.

Similarly, while 90 percent of students attending low-poverty schools had access to physics class, just 43 percent of students in high-poverty schools did.

Depressingly, this isn’t an enormous surprise given the persistent inequalities between schools attended by wealthy students compared to those attended by disadvantaged students. Such inequalities show up in everything from teacher quality to private donations. But it does underscore the question: How do we start fixing these disparities? Where’s the biggest lift for STEM fields?

It starts with being familiar with data like this that illuminates the true scope of the challenge, said Claus von Zastrow, Change the Equation’s research director and chief operating officer. “My hope is that it drives more people to dig more deeply into what the actual challenges are in these communities so they’re asking and answering the right questions,” he said.

While acknowledging that this is a big problem to solve, the group gives some ideas to help schools and districts prioritize their thinking. For one, science ought be weighed in state systems measuring school progress and accountability. All states have to administer science tests, but they don’t have to count the results for anything unless they choose. Interestingly, this is currently one of the big policy debates over the new federal law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA: The U.S. Department of Education says that states can make science testing part of their plans, but some states aren’t weighing them that much. A number of science groups think that sends a terrible message.

And schools also need teachers training in STEM knowledge and curriculum that better reflect revised science expectations, like the Next Generation Science Standards, currently adopted in 18 states and the District of Columbia. They should be done in tandem, the group says.

“STEM equipment and supplies, without the teacher piece, aren’t going to matter at all,” von Zastrow said.

The brief also highlights technological innovations such as virtual reality that could help students in underresourced schools experience “hands on” STEM experiences, and that could help enrich STEM learning for all students.

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