Congress Considering STEM in Education Overhaul

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Publication date: 
10 July 2015

On July 8, the House passed major legislation, by an almost party line vote of 218 to 213, reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the primary legislation providing for a federal role in the nation’s K-12 education.

On July 8, the House passed major legislation, by an almost party line vote of 218 to 213, reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the primary legislation providing for a federal role in the nation’s K-12 education.  The House bill was controversial due to the way it would shift the delegation of authority and control of a number of Department of Education programs from federal to local level.

Meanwhile, the Senate is considering its own version of the ESEA reauthorization, which would include a section, added by a close vote during committee markup, aimed at improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) instruction and student achievement in the nation’s elementary, middle, and high schools.  The House-passed bill does not include a STEM title, although it has some provisions throughout that would increase focus on STEM within certain programs and activities.

Beginning with the passage of its major 2002 reauthorization, also known as No Child Left Behind, the ESEA has had a federal role in the nation’s primary and secondary schools, by requiring schools to test and report on student progress and holding them accountable for their progress.  The legislation has put a special focus on schools and students from underserved communities.  Many in the scientific community would like to see a reauthorized law also turn its attention to the importance of STEM education in grades K-12, and leading science organizations are backing a 2,079-word STEM section in the Senate bill.

The STEM title the Senate proposes, in Section 2501 of S. 1177, the “Every Child Achieves Act,” would aim to improve instruction, student engagement, and teacher recruitment in STEM subjects through a program of Department of Education grants to high-need local educational agencies.  These grants would have to be spent on three core activities, to:  1) increase underserved student access to STEM fields; 2) implement evidence-based STEM instruction programs; and 3) professionally develop STEM teachers, including opportunities for instructional leadership.  

Local education agencies would also be able to use funds to participate in the development of a national STEM master teacher corps, which the bill describes as “a state-led effort to elevate the status of the STEM teaching profession by recognizing, rewarding, attracting, and retaining outstanding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers, particularly in high-need and rural schools, by offering such teachers additional compensation, instructional resources, and instructional leadership roles.” Such a corps could create a national network of experienced STEM teacher-leaders in schools and school districts. 

Other permissible uses of grant funding under the STEM title of the Senate bill include recruiting qualified teachers and instructional leaders from professional STEM fields who want to transition into the teaching profession; providing induction and mentoring services to new STEM teachers; and development of instructional supports, such as curricula and assessments, for STEM subjects.  The bill would call on grantees to develop STEM curricula and instructional supports that align with state academic standards.  Of note, it would not require schools to adopt a national standard for STEM curricula such as the Next Generation Science Standards.

Finally, the Senate bill’s STEM title requires the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to establish performance metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of the STEM activities in the bill.  An outstanding question not addressed in either the House or Senate legislation, however, is how much funding would be allocated through the Department of Education for STEM grants and other activities.  That key question would be decided on an annual basis by Congress through its appropriations process.

The Senate is expected to wrap up debate by the middle of next week on S. 1177.  Before the ESEA reauthorization becomes law, the House and Senate will have to agree on a final version, including whether to include the STEM title proposed in the Senate bill.  President Obama will also have to sign it, an uncertain prospect as the White House has indicated he would likely veto the House version of the bill.  The White House has expressed some reservations about the Senate bill as well, on matters unrelated to STEM.