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GAO: Overlap in STEM Programs, But 'Not Necessarily Duplication'

At a time when many federal lawmakers are looking to rein in spending and prioritize programs, the Government Accountability Office has just issued a report on the federal efforts to improve STEM education that are scattered across 13 agencies. It finds that while most of the programs identified "overlapped to some degree with at least one other program," this did not automatically translate into redundancy.

That said, the report notes that a majority of the federal programs—funded at more than $3 billion in total—have not been subject to "comprehensive evaluations" to assess their effectiveness since 2005. It adds that the evaluations GAO reviewed "did not always align with program objectives."

On the question of duplication, here's more of what the GAO has to say.

"Many programs have a broad scope—serving multiple target groups with multiple services," the report says. "However, even when programs overlap, the services they provide and the populations they serve may differ in meaningful ways and would therefore not necessarily be duplicative."

The report adds: "Nonetheless, the programs are similar enough that they need to be well coordinated and guided by a robust strategic plan."

In all, the GAO report identifies 13 federal agencies spending more than $3 billion in fiscal 2010.

If the focus of this report rings a bell with readers, that's probably because I recently blogged about a White House report looking at pretty much the same set of issues. That report was billed as "the most detailed inventory of the federal STEM education portfolio ever compiled."

There was a notable difference in the White House report's conclusion on the issue of duplication. As mentioned, the GAO says STEM programs were "not necessarily duplicative." But the White House panel apparently didn't see the need for the "necessarily" qualifier.

"There is only modest overlap in investments and no duplication among the STEM education investments," says the report from the National Science and Technology Council. "That does not mean that there are not opportunities for better alignment and deployment of STEM resources."

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who requested the GAO report and is the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, sees the latest findings as cause for concern.

"The federal government has dedicated significant resources to developing STEM programs, yet taxpayers have seen little evidence that these programs are actually working," he said in a press release. "According to the GAO, only about a quarter of the 209 federal STEM programs have been evaluated for efficacy since 2005, and nearly 90 percent overlap with at least one other program," said Kline. (For the record, the report says 83 percent.)

Kline continued: "Investing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a worthwhile endeavor—but pumping billions of dollars into programs that may be duplicative or unproductive is just plain foolish."

Speaking of STEM education funding, it's worth noting here that as part of a draft bill Kline recently issued to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he would eliminate the $150 million Math and Science Partnerships program at the U.S. Department of Education.

In a conversation I had yesterday with James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a broad-based advocacy group, he said he was not happy with that change. Brown told me that while he understood the desire of Republican lawmakers to hand states greater flexibility in spending federal aid, he worries that STEM education might get lost in the shuffle.

"It's sending a signal that STEM education isn't a priority," Brown argued.

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