Part I – STEM & G&T Education in the USA
Recent Federal Activity
Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education has been a prominent issue in the United States for several years. The STEM Education Coalition’s website provides an impressive list of relevant reports produced between 1996 and 2008.
More recently, the White House has sought to co-ordinate activity to support STEM education through the Educate to Innovate campaign launched in 2009. Educate to Innovate has three broad objectives:
- to increase STEM literacy so that all students can learn deeply and think critically in STEM subjects;
- to improve the performance of American students in relevant international comparisons “from the middle of the pack to top in the next decade”; and
- to expand STEM education and career opportunities for under-represented groups, including women and girls.
In September 2010, the President announced an expansion of Educate to Innovate through Change the Equation, the name given to a new not-for-profit organisation established by the business community to help in ‘elevating STEM education as a national priority essential to meeting the economic challenges of this century’.
Change the Equation also has three stated goals:
- to improve STEM teaching at all grade levels;
- to inspire student appreciation and excitement for STEM, especially among women and under-represented minorities; and,
- To secure a sustained commitment to improving STEM education.
To coincide with this announcement, the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST) – a group of 20 of the USA’s leading scientists and engineers established by Obama in April 2009 – published a Report to the President setting out wide-ranging policy proposals for improving STEM education.
The press release marking publication singles out some of the most significant recommendations aimed at federal government, including that they should:
- recruit and train 100,000 great STEM teachers over the next decade who are able to prepare and inspire students;
- recognize and reward the top 5 percent of the Nation’s STEM teachers, by creating a STEM master teachers corps;
- create 1,000 new STEM-focused schools over the next decade;
- use technology to drive innovation, in part by creating an advanced research projects agency for education;
- create opportunities for inspiration through individual and group experiences outside the classroom; and
- support the movement for shared common standards in maths and science.
The National Science Board
Not to be outdone, Some four months previously, another body, the National Science Board – the Governing Board of the National Science Foundation and Policy Advisors to the President and Congress – had published its own report which is the main focus of this post.
The NSB has 25 members from university and industry appointed by the President. The Board is responsible, along with the Director, for administering the activities of the National Science Foundation, established in 1950 to, inter alia, ‘recommend and encourage the pursuit of national policies for the promotion of research and education in science and engineering’.
The NSB had formerly published, in October 2007, a ‘National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the US Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education System’ . This sets out wide-ranging recommendations including the formation of a National Council for STEM education and development by the NSF of a ‘national roadmap’ for STEM education.
It subsequently offered a set of recommendations on STEM education to the incoming Obama administration in January 2009 which includes the proposal that:
‘The Federal Government should ensure that we are developing the talents of all children who have the potential to become STEM innovators or excellent STEM professionals.’
This is further developed in the NSB publication ‘Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators: Identifying and Developing Our Nation’s Human Capital’ which effectively joins together the G&T education and STEM agendas in the USA, pointing to the importance of ‘STEM innovators’, defined by the Report as:
‘those individuals who have developed the expertise to become leading STEM professionals and perhaps the creators of significant breakthroughs or advances in scientific and technological understanding.’
The focus of the Report can probably be traced to the fact that one of the current members of the National Science Board is Camilla P Benbow from Vanderbilt University, a psychologist and gifted education specialist perhaps best-known for her involvement with the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY).
The Report draws on the work of an ad hoc Task Group led by Benbow which was formed in August 2008 and an expert panel discussion held in August 2009. The Task Group was asked to identify strategies to increase the number of future STEM innovators and set out recommendations for how the NSF and federal partners might support their development.
The Arguments Advanced in the NSB Report
The Report begins by tracing interest in the development of American scientific talent back to the Second World War and the Sputnik wake-up call delivered by the Russians in the 1950s. It argues that this national sense of urgency was dissipated by the 1970s but needs urgently to be revived, given the strength of international competition.
It quotes PISA 2006 data showing that US 15 year-olds above the 90th percentile were rated only 30th in the world on maths literacy and 13th on science literacy. Furthermore, in the 2007 TIMSS study, the percentage of US 8th graders achieving the advanced benchmark in maths (6%) was dwarfed by Taiwan (45%), South Korea (40%) and Singapore (also 40%).
It also draws on data showing that the best qualified US students have for decades been disinclined to pursue undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in STEM subjects. It references the well-known evidence base for the argument that US G&T education is neglected, including the NAGC’s ‘State of the States‘ review and the 2007 Achievement Trap report, which drew attention to the underachievement of gifted learners from minority ethnic and socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Report cites survey and research evidence to support the contention that ‘intellectual talent often generates attitudes ranging from ambivalence to outright hostility’, going on to highlight the significant scope that exists to improve the identification and development of STEM talent:
‘More often than not, across the educational ecosystem, we see a patchwork of individual, often ad hoc provisions implemented and funded at the local level: these approaches have been instrumental for many of today’s STEM innovators and should continue. In addition, a coherent, long-term, state- or Nation-wide plan to develop the next generation of leaders in STEM is also needed. Our Nation has too often left to chance the fate of those with exceptional talent rather than ensuring widespread, systematic and appropriate opportunities to flourish.’
The NSB’s Recommendations
The Report recommends a set of policy actions and a research agenda for three ‘keystone recommendations’. While I accept that much remains unknown in the territory, I am not sure it will serve the US to invest too high a proportion of its scarce resources in generating further research studies. I have the ex-policy maker’s preference for concrete action to change the situation described in the report, so I will concentrate solely on the policy recommendations.
First, the NSB argues that the country should provide opportunities for excellence in the form of ‘co-ordinated, proactive, sustained formal and informal interventions to develop the abilities of its most talented students’ by:
- encouraging the adoption of supportive policies at state and district level on differentiated instruction, acceleration and enrichment and transition between schools;
- improving access to and the quality of dual enrolment, college-level coursework and enrichment programmes;
- supporting high-quality STEM-focused professional development for teachers, including non-subject specialists working with younger learners;
- giving federal support to programmes with a proven record of success in stimulating potential STEM innovators;
- through the NSF, encouraging stronger partnership between universities, museums, industry, content developers and providers, research laboratories and schools to ‘deploy the Nation’s science assets in ways that engage tomorrow’s STEM innovators’;
- creating NSF-driven programmes that provide portable merit-based scholarships for talented students to take part in challenging enrichment activities.
- increasing online access and online learning activities in rural and low-income areas; and
- creating a national database of appropriate formal and informal learning opportunities and promote these nationally to parents, educators and providers.
Second, the US should cast a wide net to identify and develop all abilities amongst all student demographics by:
- improving the availability and ‘vertical coherence’ of existing talent identification;
- expand existing tests and identification strategies to ensure that spatial talent is not neglected;
- increasing access to above-level testing and other identification activity, especially in disadvantaged urban and rural areas;
- encouraging initial training and professional development of teachers in talent identification and development; and
- encouraging early childhood educators and paediatricians to improve awareness of early giftedness and how to respond to it.
Third, the country should foster a supportive ecosystem that celebrates excellence and innovation through a positive and inclusive culture by:
- establishing a national campaign to increase understanding and appreciation of academic excellence so transforming unhelpful stereotypes;
- encouraging through professional development the creation of positive school environments that foster excellence;
- increasing schools’ capacity to engage their learners in peer-to-peer collaboration and connections between students and the scientific research community;
- holding schools – and potentially districts and states – accountable for the performance of their highest achieving students at each grade;
- arranging for the NSF in partnership with the Institute of Education Sciences to hold a high-level conference that brings together scientists and educators to discuss teacher education and pedagogical best practice in fostering innovative thinking in children and young adults.
What Impact will the Report Have?
The Report concludes:
‘The Board firmly believes that the recommendations set forth in this report will help to ensure a legacy of continued prosperity for the United States and engender a renewed sense of excellence in our education system, benefiting generations to come.’
Well, maybe, but this is clearly a crowded area in US policy-making with a whole host of federal interests involved. Arne Duncan’s statement on the publication of the President’s Council Report acknowledges the contribution and involvement of the NSF amongst others.
But it is not yet clear whether the NSB will be successful in persuading the federal Government to invest in G&T education, albeit with a STEM focus.
I am not well-versed in how these things are handled on the other side of the Atlantic but, had I been the federal official charged with developing national STEM education policy, I could have wished for a somewhat clearer report with:
- some prioritisation between the different recommendations and a clearer delineation of responsibility for their implementation;
- greater clarity about how these recommendations relate to other parts of the Presidential agenda for STEM as set out in the publications referenced above; and, above all,
- some realistic costings showing how the recommendations can be achieved within a finite budget .
For I fear that, while much of the Report makes eminent good sense, it is insufficiently specific about how its recommendations can be delivered.
Time will tell whether the Report will influence directly the content of US national policy on STEM education. If it can do so, it is perhaps the best hope for the reform of US G&T education, especially if the vital connection between STEM support and narrowing the ‘excellence gap’ can be sustained.