Is There a Special Formula for Successful STEM Schools?

With all the attention to poor U.S. student achievement in math and science, the questions that Congress put to the National Science Foundation (NSF) 18 months ago tackles the problem from the opposite direction: What is the United States doing right in precollege science and math education? And what can the rest of the country learn from the schools that do it best?

This week an expert panel, convened by the National Academies’ National Research Council to answer those questions put to NSF, held a workshop in Washington, D.C., to explore “successful STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education in K-12 schools.” Although the panel’s report won’t be out for another month or so, the overriding message from workshop participants seemed clear—and perhaps not surprising: A successful science and math school is a successful school first, with skilled, knowledgeable teachers who address the needs of all students in a supportive, resource-rich environment. Anything that dilutes those ingredients—budget cuts, poor teacher preparation and professional development, a disregard for low-achieving students, to name three factors—will lower the chances of success. And none of the elements is enough to make a difference by itself.

Over 2 days of presentations and panel discussions, participants explored the relatively scant data available about the characteristics of good STEM education. They also heard lots of anecdotes about best practices at different types of schools, from selective, specialty STEM schools for college-bound high achievers to comprehensive high schools that give disadvantaged students a better chance to graduate and attend college by offering them more science and math than they would otherwise receive. A consensus also seemed to form on two other important points that may not be music to the ears of elected officials: Successful STEM education is a lot easier to describe than to implement, and researchers still can’t answer the question that matters most to a school superintendent, namely, "What would work best in my district?"

Preliminary results from one study, which is tracking 1300 students 4 to 6 years after they graduated from one of four types of specialty STEM schools, found they were much more likely than the general student population to major in a STEM field and that there’s a strong correlation between doing research in high school and earning a STEM degree. But the study is coping with a low response rate, admits Robert Tai of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Moreover, his team is still collecting data from a comparison group that didn’t attend such STEM high schools, and he makes no claim that any of the results are causative.

Another speaker, Viki Young of SRI International in Menlo Park, California, didn’t dispute a panelist’s choice of words when he asked about official reaction to her “quite minimal results” in an evaluation still under way of 51 newly created STEM schools in Texas serving disadvantaged and minority students. “We’ve tried to temper the expectations” of the organizations funding the study, Young confessed to the panel. “The governor touts them in his speeches, but these are still very early days.”

Adam Gamoran, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who chairs the panel, says he hopes that the academy’s internal reviewers will fast-track a letter report that the group plans to submit in the coming weeks. And although he declined to telegraph its likely message, he admits that it won’t offer policymakers a silver bullet. “The question is much more complicated than simply identifying schools with high test scores,” says Gamoran, who directs the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in Madison. “It’s not just about mentoring the next-generation STEM workforce. It’s also about providing underrepresented minorities with the opportunity for advancement and raising the achievement levels of average students.”

He adds: “That’s why we wanted to go beyond describing schools to address questions of effective practices, that is, what practices make the most difference, to which students, and under what circumstances? To a large extent, schools are still a black box, and we need to know a lot more about what happens in them, and why.”