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How Much Is 'STEM' Education Worth to Obama?

President Obama has repeatedly sought to highlight his support for improving "STEM" education, including at an event last week. But a look at one particular measure—the value it's assigned in the federal Race to the Top competition—raises questions about how high a priority the issue is for the administration.

The $4 billion federal competition will rate state applications on a variety of factors, from their commitment to adopting common standards to implementing longitudinal data systems, improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance, and promoting charter schools.

To do this, the U.S. Department of Education has developed a point system to score applications, with a perfect score being 500. A state can earn up to 58 points, for example, for "improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance." It can get 40 points for "developing and adopting common standards." Another 40 points go to those who ensure "successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools."

As for an emphasis on STEM education, the teaching of science, engineering, technology, and math? It gets just 15 points. STEM enthusiasts, however, may be pleased to know that 15 points was by no means the lowest amount for an assigned category.

For example, STEM beat out:
•Improving the effectiveness of teacher- and principal-preparation programs (14 points);
•Making education funding a priority (10 points, ouch!); and
•Accessing and using state data (5 points), though "fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system came in at 24 points.

It also may be worth noting that STEM education is identified as the only "competitive preference priority" in the department guidelines for Race to the Top, but that doesn't seem to change the fact that STEM gets 15 points. (There are several "invitational" priorities as well, such as "innovations for improving early-learning outcomes" and "P-20 Coordination, Vertical and Horizontal Alignment.")

To be sure, the Race to the Top certainly isn't the only way to gauge the administration's priorities. The president has devoted valuable bully pulpit time to STEM education on multiple occasions and launched an "Educate to Innovate" campaign last fall to promote excellence in the area. Also, the federal government provides a lot of money for STEM education, more than $3 billion each year across a range of agencies, based on a recent analysis.

During a chat the other day with Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, for another story, he offered high praise for President Obama's personal attention to STEM issues. But he seemed a bit disappointed that it wasn't given more value in the Race to the Top calculus.

"We did notice that," he told me. "I think the general message from us is that we're glad it's the only competitive priority, ... but we would have really appreciated a much higher percentage in the required points range."

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