NRC Study on Successful K-12 STEM Education

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Publication date: 
14 October 2011

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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.’” 

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