FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

NRC Study on Successful K-12 STEM Education

Richard M. Jones
Number 126 - October 14, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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There is widespread agreement that American schools must improve K-12 instruction in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.  A new National Research Council report highlights how little firm evidence exists about how best to do so.

The impetus for this report was language in a June 2009 House Appropriations Committee report accompanying the FY 2010 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill.  The committee directed the National Science Foundation to work with organizations such as the National Research Council on a report on K-6 science education, and recommendations on how to improve it. 

NSF responded to the appropriators’ request by supporting a National Research Council committee chaired by Adam Gamoran of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The resulting  report, “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” was written by the Committee on Highly Successful Schools or Programs for K-12 STEM Education, under the Board on Science Education and Board on Testing and Assessment of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Academies. 

The 38-page report opens with a brief discussion of the study’s scope, and a one-page summary of previous reports outlining the importance of innovation to the creation of future jobs and a review of American student’s proficiency in STEM subjects.  The next section describes three “broad and widely espoused” long-term goals for U.S. K-12 STEM education:

“Expand the number of students who ultimately pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields and broaden the participation of women and minorities in those fields.

“Expand the STEM-capable workforce and broaden the participation of women and minorities in that workforce.

“Increase STEM literacy for all students, including those who do not pursue STEM-related careers or additional study in the STEM disciplines.”

Of note, the committee found “Scientific research provides little evidence about how to accomplish the three broad goals. Research is even limited with respect to the intermediate goals, including goals related to accountability, when success is often measured at the school or district level.”

The report then examines three school types or programs focusing on STEM education.  Again, causal research limitations, and a wide range of opinion about what constitutes success, makes it challenging to identify what works best.  Most of the studies reviewed were for high school students. 

Regarding selective STEM schools the committee concluded “No completed studies provide a rigorous analysis of the contributions that selective schools make over and above regular schools.  One such study was under way at the time of this report.  Preliminary results from that study presented at the [NRC committee’s] workshop show that when compared with national samples of high school graduates with ability and interest in STEM subjects, the experiences of students who graduate from selective schools appear to be associated with their choice to pursue and complete a STEM major.”    

There were similar research limitations for inclusive schools that “are organized around one or more of the STEM disciplines but have no selective admissions criteria.”  One early finding from an ongoing study of such high schools in Texas found that students “score slightly higher on the state mathematics and science achievement tests, are less likely to be absent from school, and take more advanced courses than their peers in comparison schools.”

The third type of approach reviewed by the committee were “schools and programs with STEM-focused career and technical [CTE] education.”  “Despite many examples of highly regarded CTE schools and programs, there is little research that would support conclusions about the effectiveness of the programs, particularly in comparison with alternatives,” the committee found.

In conclusion:

 “The limited research base on the three school types hampered the committee’s ability to compare their effectiveness relative to each other and for different student populations or to identify the value these schools add over and above non-STEM focused schools.”

The committee found “a larger body of rigorous evidence is available on practices that are associated with better student outcomes, regardless of whether students are in a STEM-focused school or in a regular school.”  “Thus, the committee believed that the most useful way of identifying criteria for success relates to educational practices: what practices should be used to identify effective STEM schools?”  Highlighting effective STEM instruction, the committee sets forth five “key elements” to guide educators and policy makers:

“A coherent set of standards and curriculum.”

“Teachers with high capacity to teach in their discipline.”

“A supportive system of assessment and accountability.”

“Adequate instructional time.”

“Equal access to high-quality STEM learning opportunities.”

Not surprisingly, school conditions and its culture are important factors in student learning, the committee concluding “Research suggests that although teacher qualifications matter, the school context - its culture and conditions - matters just as much, if not more.”  Common characteristics of elementary schools in Chicago with improved student learning in mathematics and reading were the school’s leadership, professional capacity, parent-community ties, a student-centered learning climate, and instructional guidance.

The report concludes with “a series of next steps at the local, state, and national levels to strengthen K-12 STEM education.”  Five proposals are recommended for schools and school districts, including adequate instruction time and resources; focused, rigorous STEM curricula; enhancement of K-12 teacher capacity; and professional development.  For state and national policy makers, the committee offers the following:

“Policy makers at the national, state, and local levels should elevate science to the same level of importance as reading and mathematics. Science should be assessed with the same frequency as mathematics and literacy, using a system of assessment that supports learning and understanding. Such a system is not currently available. Therefore, states and national organizations should develop effective systems of assessment that are aligned with the next generation of science standards and that emphasize science practices rather than mere factual recall.

“National and state policy makers should invest in a coherent, focused, and sustained set of supports for STEM teachers to help them teach in effective ways. Teachers in STEM should have options to pursue professional learning that addresses their professional needs through a variety of mechanisms, including peer-to-peer collaboration, professional learning communities, and outreach with universities and other organizations.

“Furthermore, federal agencies should support research that disentangles the effects of school practice from student selection, recognizes the importance of contextual variables, and allows for longitudinal assessments of student outcomes, including the three strategic goals of STEM education and intermediate outcomes. Federal funding for STEM-focused schools should be tied to a robust, strategic research agenda. Only knowledge of this sort will allow a full response to the questions that were put to this committee.”

The committee’s report was highlighted at a September 19 national convocation in Philadelphia attended by approximately 300 educators, policy makers, and business professionals.  Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), Ranking Member on the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee attended addressed this meeting.  Also appearing was Office of Science and Technology Policy Associate Director for Science Carl Wieman who discussed an inventory compiled by OSTP of 252 specific STEM education programs in 13 agencies that according to an OSTP release, represent “a total Federal investment of $3.5 billion.”  In commenting on this inventory, Wieman said “we find that all of these 252 different programs are actually doing quite unique things – each one is distinctly different from all 251 other programs.”  Using this inventory, a plan will be delivered to Congress by January, that, he said, “will look at how to strategically focus limited Federal dollars so they will have the highest possible impact in areas of national priority.”

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing on the report.   The subcommittee heard from several witnesses, one of which was Adam Gamoran, the chairman of the NRC committee authoring the report.  His testimony, and that of other witnesses, stressed the important role that the federal government plays in supporting research on STEM education.

Going forward, policy makers and educators should consider a finding about STEM education in  one metropolitan area that was presented in the report.  The committee wrote:

“A 2007 study of science education in California paints a starker picture. That survey of nine counties in the San Francisco Bay Area found: ‘80 percent of K-5th grade multiple-subject teachers who are responsible for teaching science in their classrooms reported spending 60 minutes or less per week on science, with 16 percent of teachers spending no time at all on science.’ Those researchers estimate that their results actually overstate the amount of science instruction in the Bay Area because ‘teachers who took the time to respond to the survey are more likely to be engaged in science education than those who did not.’” 

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics