Parents Want STEM Classes, So Why Do Schools Struggle to Keep Them Alive?

Initiatives at campuses with predominantly low-income, minority populations tend to crash and burn.

(Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Oct 7, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

They are hailed as fast tracks to equality for underserved, low-achieving schools and a way to prepare their students for the 21st-century, technology-based economy. Yet a new study shows that, victimized partly by the standardized test–driven culture, poor school conditions, and the legacy of separate-and-unequal funding, ambitious STEM programs installed in struggling districts tended to be in disarray or had evaporated completely within a few years.

The study, led by a team of eight researchers from the University of Buffalo and the University of Colorado Boulder, found that programs designed to boost students’ science, technology, engineering, and math skills in majority-minority, predominantly low-income schools barely had an impact on the students they were intended to help, and in some cases they dragged down scores on standardized tests.

“Under-performing schools need an awful lot of support to manage the demands of a STEM program," the study’s coauthor, Margaret Eisenhart, an educational anthropology and research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote in an email to TakePart. According to Eisenhart, the study's findings challenge the notion that simply bringing advanced science and math courses to struggling schools will put black and Latino students on the road to parity with their peers in wealthier, mostly white districts.

The researchers studied STEM programs at urban, low-income majority-minority schools in Buffalo, New York, and Denver over three years to determine how the campuses have implemented STEM education reforms. Their research included studying “inclusive STEM-focused schools,” which are intended to close the gap between African Americans, Latinos, and whites.

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The three-year study looked at classes and programs available for students who were in the top 20 percent of their class in science and math at the end of ninth grade, who had an interest in science or math-based professions, and who could benefit in college from STEM classes in high school.

“We studied, in-depth, four high schools,” Eisenhart wrote. “We spent three years in the schools following a small group of high-achieving students at each school,” she added. Two schools in each city were entirely STEM-focused, while the other two were “regular, comprehensive high schools” under pressure to improve math and science opportunities for students.

In both Denver and Buffalo, according to the study, communities made substantial investments: new facilities, new curricula, and budget allotments. Yet within a few years, major problems appeared.

“With the exception of the one slightly more privileged school, efforts to improve STEM education enhancements failed or could not be sustained over the course of three years,” Eisenhart wrote. “There were some indications that the regular comprehensive high schools (which were not making so many changes at once) made some slight improvements.”

According to the study, the problems ranged from scheduling conflicts between STEM classes and core classes students needed to graduate. Other campuses announced engineering or science-related programs, such as robotics courses, that never came to fruition.

At the same time that the schools rolled out STEM programs, administrators also had to implement standards-based reforms—including mandates like No Child Left Behind—amid stubborn problems like high teacher turnover and overburdened parents. “Establishing a STEM school, alone, cannot be a panacea for under-performing schools,” wrote Eisenhart.

Success in those programs “is not a matter of will,” Eisenhart continued. “The will is there: administrators, parents, and teachers were all very excited about setting up a STEM-focused school” for students who wouldn’t have had access to one. But the devil was in the details, according to Eisenhart, and the lack of support caused the programs to be reduced, watered down, or eliminated.

“Many students aren’t prepared academically, and, perhaps more importantly, they and their parents weren’t given adequate information or time to select a STEM track within a school,” she wrote. In one school, Eisenhart added, “students were asked to choose a high school track in eighth grade at the end of a one-hour school assembly on the topic!”

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Despite the setbacks experienced at the schools in Denver and in Buffalo, Eisenhart believes administrators, parents, and teachers shouldn’t give up on STEM. Her colleague, Lois Weis, a professor at the University of Buffalo and a coauthor of the report, concurred.

"Our idea is not to say that this is failing," Weis told Education Week. "It's that as we engage it, we have to take into account a number of things."