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High Schools Are Adding More STEM Classes. It May Not Be Enough

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"No young person in America should miss out on the chance to excel in [STEM] fields just because they don't have the resources."

Remember this line? It's from a 2015 speech by then-President Barack Obama. Or how about this?

"My administration will do everything possible to provide our children, especially kids in underserved areas, with access to high-quality education in science, technology, engineering, and math." 

That was from a 2017 promise by President Donald Trump to direct the U.S. Department of Education to prioritize STEM in its grant programs.

For more than a decade, politicians have raised concerns that not enough U.S. students are specializing in these subjects, leaving the country reliant on talent from overseas to fill engineering and tech jobs. All of that has led to a tremendous amount of attention on the "STEM pipeline" and how to improve it. 

Now, new research suggests that one of the popular policy solutions—increasing access to STEM courses in high school—may be no panacea for producing more college students who take STEM classes or major in STEM fields, raising big questions about what needs to change in K-12 to improve outcomes in the field.

It finds that high schools with a greater menu of STEM classes did not produce students more likely to declare a STEM major in college—or to earn a degree in a STEM subject—at noticeably higher rates than their peers.

"The narrative out there is that there's this pent-up demand for STEM coursework and there's not enough access for kids to take these courses that they really want to take. But our study is just not consistent with that at all," said Cory Koedel, an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri and one of five researchers who conducted the study.

The research appears as a working paper at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data In Education Research, or CALDER, and has not yet been submitted for peer review. (Economists usually put out papers like this for comments and feedback before they formally submit to a journal.)

Testing a Theory

The theory of improving course access makes a lot of sense: The idea is that many students who would take STEM classes can't enroll in them at high school. To test the theory, the researchers analyzed records of more than 140,000 students entering Missouri's four-year public university system, and connected back to the high schools those students attended.

The link between course access and future STEM outcomes turns out to be hard to study without capturing potential bias: What if some high schools, like those located in more advantaged neighborhoods, have more STEM courses simply because parents demand them? The new research handles this problem by comparing only those students who attended the same high school to one another over time, reasoning that changes in access are likely to be modest over short time periods and driven by enrollment and logistics, not issues like neighborhood wealth.

But the data showed that, for every one-unit increase in courses available per student, high school students' cumulative coursetaking in STEM barely budged. What's more, students with more access to STEM classes in high school were not more likely to declare a major in a STEM field or earn a degree in one.

And the data did not show any particular impact for more STEM courses within high schools with large numbers of students of color, which tend to lack access to more rigorous coursework generally. 

Parsing Disappointing Findings

As with any study of this type, it's hard to know what's driving the findings. One possibility is that high schools are pretty scheduled places, so possibly students aren't responding to greater access because their schedules are already full. (In other words, with more options, they are merely substituting advanced chemistry for physics, rather than taking both.) 

A more depressing hypothesis: Maybe high school students just aren't as interested in STEM as adults want them to be. If that's the case, then efforts to boost student interest in STEM will need to start far, far earlier in their schooling life.

The finding doesn't mean that course access is a bad goal for policymakers to have; just that on its own it doesn't appear to be doing all that much. Perhaps, the authors note, rather than adding a class here or there, schools need to more deeply revamp their offerings in those subjects.

They postulate that a "deeper, more stable STEM curriculum" that predates high school might have more of an effect, and suggest that policymakers also revisit how the subject is taught.

"For high school STEM policies to be effective at promoting postsecondary STEM interest and success, the norm of high school STEM instruction will need to change," the researchers conclude.

Image: Getty


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