How to make STEM education a success

Adequate instructional time is a key part of a strong STEM education program.

What makes science programs at specialized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) schools better than ordinary programs? A new report identifies key factors that contribute to effective STEM education, and it recommends that science instruction receive the same level of priority as math and reading.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” from the National Research Council, responds to a request from Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., to identify highly successful K-12 schools that specialize in one or more STEM disciplines.

“Rep. Wolf asked a really important question, but one that’s difficult to answer,” said Adam Gamoran, chair of the committee that authored the report. “We can see which schools have success, but it’s not easy to see whether that success is because of the schools or the students.  So we asked what criteria can help us identify successful schools in STEM education, not just through test scores, but also through whether students are taking advanced courses [and are] interested, motivated, [and] moving into technical fields.”

For more news about STEM education, see:

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

The report identifies six factors required for successful STEM education:

•    A coherent set of standards and curriculum
•    Highly qualified teachers
•    A supportive system of assessment and accountability
•    Adequate instructional time
•    Equal access
•    A school culture that encourages learning

“Our conclusion is that no one of these areas will be enough to transform STEM education. … You really have to do all of these steps,” Gamoran said.  “I realize that makes it complicated, but it’s a complicated problem that demands a complicated solution.”

The report offers two sets of proposals for improvements—one for schools and districts and another for state and national policy. Instead of waiting for major federal policy changes, superintendents and school administrators can effect immediate change by allocating adequate instructional time and providing ample training opportunities for teachers, said Gamoran.

In particular, the report warns that science instructional time is being squeezed out as early as the elementary level to make room for reading and math, which are regularly assessed under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“A quality science program in the elementary grades is an important foundation that can stimulate students’ interest in taking more science courses in middle school and high school and, possibly, in pursuing STEM disciplines and careers,” the report said.

The report organizes specialized schools in three categories: selective schools, which have selective admission criteria; inclusive schools, which do not have admission requirements; and STEM-focused career and technology education (CTE).

For more news about STEM education, see:

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

Whether students who choose to attend specialized schools are predisposed to success in STEM subjects at any school has been a recurring, confounding variable in research on effects of specialized schools. To combat this problem, the report considered findings to give “evidence of success” only if researchers can distinguish the effectiveness of schools from the characteristics of the students attending them—but it says more studies are necessary.

Gamoran suggests one way such research could be conducted: “These STEM-focused schools are highly desirable.  When a school is oversubscribed, the fairest way is to have a lottery. What we could do is compare those students who go and those who do not, not just on test scores, but on whether they take advanced courses, go on to major in science in college, or have careers in STEM fields.”

Selective STEM education schools, such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., have received continuous attention in the press for achieving high test scores and sending students to top colleges. The report finds, however, that not only are selective school environments difficult to replicate on a larger scale, but inclusive and CTE schools also have significant potential to increase U.S. intellectual capital in STEM fields.

“Some people may have expected to see effective STEM instruction mostly in the selective STEM schools, but we found that effective STEM instruction may occur in any of these schools—selective, inclusive, or for career training—and even in regular schools,” Gamoran said.

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