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Model 'Inclusive' STEM High Schools Share Common Traits, Researchers Say

The recent proliferation of open-enrollment STEM high schools has been a "bolt of lightning" to the field of K-12 science, technology, engineering and math education, researchers say, but more study is needed on what makes such schools effective.

"All of a sudden, here is an education intervention aimed at kids of color and low-socioeconomic-status kids that isn't trying remediate them, but is giving them an opportunity to take rigorous STEM courses and everything that goes along with that," said Sharon Lynch, an education professor at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.  "But there isn't much research on these schools, so we're trying to understand what the successful ones are doing."

Along with colleagues from George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., and Princeton, N.J.-based research nonprofit SRI International, Lynch presented recent research on what she dubbed "Inclusive STEM High Schools," or ISHSs, last week at the national conference of the American Educational Research Association, held in Philadelphia. Prior to the conference, I caught up with the academics by phone.

Their research includes case studies of eight "exemplary" open-enrollment STEM high schools—both charter and district-managed—around the country. 

Those schools, Lynch said, have ten "critical components" that should serve as the basis for guiding the design, implementation, and evaluation of other such schools —which the researchers said are becoming increasingly popular, with dozens or possibly hundreds of ISHSs coming online in recent years.

"Anybody can call themselves a STEM school," Lynch said, but living up to the term involves "more than just putting a banner out." 

The 10 critical components of effective, inclusive STEM high schools identified by the researchers:

  • STEM-focused curriculum
  • Instructional strategies focused on project-based learning  
  • Integrated, innovative technology use that can "flatten hierarchies" between students and teachers
  • Blended formal and information learning beyond the typical school day, week or year, which might include apprenticeships, mentoring, and after-school clubs
  • Real-world STEM partnerships that connect students to the work world
  • Early college-level coursework
  • Well-prepared STEM teaching staff
  • Inclusive STEM mission
  • Administrative structure that is flexible and nimble, and
  • Support for underrepresented students, which might include bridge and tutoring programs or an extended school day and year.

In their recent paper, published in the academic journal Theory Into Practice, the researchers say that recent data from the National Science Foundation (which also funded their case studies) indicated that "traditional science domains of biology, chemistry and physics remained entrenched as siloed disciplines in the majority of American high schools" and that "direct whole-class instruction by the teacher was the most commonly reported strategy in high schools."

Effective open-enrollment STEM high schools, they say, take a different approach, focusing on mastery- or competency-based learning requirements instead of student seat time and teaching "students to be consumers of reliable digital resources" rather than relying on textbooks.  Collaborative group projects are also a "hallmark" of effective ISHSs, the researchers found.

On the administrative side, the researchers found, the schools in their case studies had "transformational" leaders who "fostered close relationships between staff and students characterized by mutual and trust and respect." Just as important, they said, the schools has "wide latitude and support from the district [central office] or [charter] management organization to champion innovation."

And when it comes to providing student supports, effective open-enrollment STEM high schools evidence a "commitment to the success of diverse learners, advisories, data management systems, and tutoring," as well as intensive college and career counseling. A family atmosphere focused on understanding and addressing students' personal and financial challenges is also key, they said.

"Historically, STEM high schools are for elite students," said report author Erin Peters-Burton, an assistant professor of science education at George Mason University. "These schools will take everyone, and the exemplars are doing a good job of providing systemic supports."

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices and trends.

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