ESSA Is a Big Piece of the STEM Equity Puzzle

This op-ed was originally published in Education Week. You can view the original here.

Earlier this fall, President Donald Trump called on the U.S. Department of Education to direct at least $200 million in competitive grant funding toward expanding science, technology, engineering, math, and computer science education. Though the administration hasn’t detailed exactly how they would implement the funds, the announcement builds on a growing nationwide commitment to STEM education.

The president’s directive also parallels similar moves by dozens of states to prioritize STEM education despite flat or declining state education budgets. High-quality STEM education not only has the potential to foster curiosity and creativity in students, it is critical for U.S. economic growth. But both words and plans are insufficient without follow-through. To best promote student success in STEM, we need both adequate funding and implementation of smart and equitable policies by all states and the District of Columbia.

And states (and their educators) still have a lot of work to do. Take training, for example: U.S. employers report having difficulty finding qualified STEM workers. According to the STEM literacy nonprofit Change the Equation, job postings in STEM occupations outnumber unemployed workers by nearly two to one. We need to do better in creating a pipeline or retraining the unemployed.

Additionally, access to STEM education is deeply inequitable—and that is reflected in schools and in the workforce. Change the Equation reports that low-poverty high schools are four times more likely to offer Advanced Placement computer science classes than high-poverty high schools.

It is also well documented that people of color and women are significantly underrepresented in science and engineering occupations. This lack of diversity and a stark gender divide cannot continue, especially when the opportunities are there if we guide students toward the right pathways to reach them. It starts by giving all young people exposure to enriching STEM experiences to develop their interests.

So what are states doing to address this? The Every Student Succeeds Act provides more flexibility to states than its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, did. Under ESSA, states can spend federal education dollars and measure school performance and accountability to support STEM education. In a recent report for the education policy organization Education First, two of us—Anand Vaishnav and Jacob Waters—analyzed 25 state ESSA plans (17 submitted for the federal April deadline, as well as eight draft plans), and found that many states are taking advantage of that flexibility to address STEM learning.

In particular, 17 states are incorporating student performance on state science assessments into their accountability systems; 17 states are including career- and technical-education indicators in their accountability systems; and 10 states are prioritizing STEM in their federally funded after-school programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

The vital role ESSA plays in putting states’ STEM commitment into action is clear. With Trump signaling a funding directive to STEM education, he also shouldn’t forget about the importance of continuing to fund ESSA at 2017 fiscal levels, at the very least, particularly the sections that support training and development for effective educators (Title II) and provide student supports (Title IV). Both of those sections, which the Trump administration has proposed cutting, have major implications for STEM education. With sufficient funding in place, states need to implement these policies in a way that promotes student success, especially for low-income students and students of color. States should:

Direct more resources toward at-risk students. States that use student performance on science assessments in their accountability systems will have the data to determine which districts, schools, and students need additional support for STEM learning. Giving at-risk students access to resources like curriculum, laboratory supplies, and highly effective STEM teachers would be a huge step forward. After all, equity means giving all students what they need—not giving them the same things.

Build STEM career pathways in career- and technical-education programming. Though building STEM skills is useful in itself, states should coordinate with local industries so that students of all backgrounds can easily transition into a career after graduating from CTE programs. For instance, Tennessee has a strong model that directly connects its CTE programming with high wage-growth occupations in the state, providing career opportunities for students who most need them.

Use high-quality after-school providers that give students new opportunities and experiences. Informal learning experiences—such as hands-on experiments and trips to museums—can help students develop a lasting passion for STEM. Unsurprisingly, low-income students are far less likely to have those experiences. States should prioritize funding for after-school providers that provide effective STEM instruction while giving students opportunities they are unlikely to have elsewhere.

In an environment where resources are limited, the federal government, states, districts, educators, and families need to come together to get STEM right. Our students, and our country, deserve nothing less.

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