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Report Says Instruction, Not Schools, Is Key to Successful Science Programs

What do specialized U.S. math and science schools do differently that allows them to churn out graduates who ace national and international tests on those subjects? And can those secrets be shared with educators around the country trying to improve science and math instruction in their districts?

Two years ago an influential member of Congress asked the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore those questions. NSF farmed out the job to the National Academies, which today delivered its answer: It's not the school that makes the difference, it's the way science is taught. In fact, according to the report from the academies' National Research Council, there's no good evidence that students are any more likely to graduate from college with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degree or pursue a scientific career if they attend a specialty science and math school than a regular school. But the good news is that any school can adopt the elements needed for a top-quality science program—sufficient instructional time for well-trained teachers to implement a strong curriculum with effective assessments—if it allocates the necessary time, money, and effort.

When Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) asked NSF to explore the issue, he was hoping that the practices of the best STEM schools in the country "might be more broadly replicated in the U.S. public school system." He was thinking in particular of one school bordering his district, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, that has earned the top ranking in media assessments of the nation's best schools. The problem, according to the authors of Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, is that the school is the wrong unit for examining what works.

"I think that Representative Wolf has raised an important and challenging question," says panel chair Adam Gamoran, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "But even if you identify those high-performing schools, you still need to know what they are doing before you can adopt them elsewhere," says Gamoran. "So we decided to focus on the instructional practices that lead to effective STEM education."

The panel was pushed in that direction by relative paucity of evidence about the impact of specialized science schools compared with the more extensive literature on what makes for an effective STEM program. "Little research is available that demonstrates the effectiveness of STEM-focused schools in comparison with other schools or that contrasts the relative effectiveness of their different approaches on a variety of student outcomes," the report notes. "As a result, the committee is not able to identify a distinct set of criteria related to STEM-focused schools themselves." That is true, it said, for each of the three types of specialized schools that it reviewed: selective STEM schools such as Thomas Jefferson, inclusive STEM high schools (e.g. a STEM emphasis within an open-admission school), and STEM-focused career and technical education schools.

The report goes on to say that, even if such a silver bullet existed, most school districts would be hard-pressed to manufacture it:

Specialized models of STEM schools are difficult to replicate on a larger scale. ... Specialized STEM schools often benefit from a high level of resources, a highly motivated student body, and freedom from state testing requirements. These conditions would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement more widely.

At the same time, the panel says that schools should take science more seriously—devoting more class-time to it, and investing more in the training and professional development of those who teach it. Those recommendations would require additional spending and a reallocation of the existing school day or calendar, although the report does not address how such changes should be implemented.

Gamoran says that the panel hopes NSF will use its findings, and a longer report to be issued this summer describing studies now under way, to shape future research programs that seek answers to Wolf's original questions. Wolf, who chairs the House of Representatives spending panel that sets NSF's budget, hopes to co-host a symposium this fall in Philadelphia with Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA) featuring classroom tips and materials prepared by NSF and the Department of Education that are based on the contents of the report.