New STEM Ed. Plan Runs Into Old Obstacles

By Cameron
October 15, 2007

Policy fights often boil down to a rather fundamental debate — federal vs. local control. Education policy always seems to be on the front lines, particularly when it comes to K-12 education. It isn’t surprising to see familiar battle lines being draw over a new plan for coordinating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education across the country.

The National Science Board (which is the National Science Foundation’s oversight and advisory board) released a report recommending several actions to strengthen STEM education. ACM, through its newly established Education Policy Committee, commented on a early draft of the plan. Our two main points were that NSB should include computing societies in their proposed STEM Education Council and computer science should an integral part of the plan. We are pleased that the NSB responded to our comments and included ACM along with The Computer Science Teachers Association as potential participants in their effort.

The plan’s central premise is clear: America’s education system isn’t adequate for the global challenges in the 21st Century. In parsing that challenge it takes on all the big issues in STEM education — reforming curriculum, coordinating and making sense of existing federal and state programs, and ensuring highly-qualified teachers. No one really debates that these are the challenges, the rub occurs in how to deal with them. During a recent Congressional hearing reviewing the plan STEM education constituencies generally agreed with the findings of the report, but those with state and local control over education broke with national groups on exactly how to address the issues.

The main source of controversy is over curriculum reform; one of the key elements of the NSB plan. NSB argues that schools should align STEM curriculum vertically and horizontally. Meaning that a student’s learning should logically progress through the grades (vertical) and transferring to another school district would put the student at the same level of learning in any STEM subject (horizontal). To drive this change the NSB proposes a non-federal coordination council that would include a diversity of representatives including governments, STEM educators, business, and disciplinary societies. The council would serve as a clearinghouse and discussion forum, but it wouldn’t have any direct power to change curriculum across the approximately 14,000 school districts.

This idea provoked some fairly expected responses about local control at the Congressional hearing. The witness representing the Council of Chief State School Officers testified that the council might be seen as a vehicle for developing national content standards, which wouldn’t be appropriate. They also said that the effort could add unneeded bureaucracy on state and local governments. The witness from the Business Roundtable (a group of top CEOs) clearly supported the idea of national standards, calling the issue of 50 different state standards as “absurd.” But then stated the political reality of such an effort, “To put it simply, we do not believe that federal involvement at this juncture would be helpful in moving a process that is gaining ground at the state level.” (Some business groups are working directly with governors in a ground-up reform effort.) Interestingly, one could make exactly the opposite point. The council has no specific power over the 14,000 different local education agencies, so there is a good question about whether they would have any impact at all.

Either way, this discussion leaves the idea in political limbo. Congress would have to pass legislation implementing the proposed council, and it isn’t clear what mechanism would gain the support of state and local groups. As Congressman Ehlers’ (R-MI) stated during the hearing, coordination of STEM education is really a “grand challenge” and one that is difficult to solve. You can’t give power over local issues to groups that aren’t accountable to local voters, but you can’t expect thousands of different groups with competing interests to drive toward a national consensus. The question may be: Is STEM different, and does it require a national plan that treads beyond traditional political boundaries? The Business Roundtable captured this issue quite well, “… the appropriate comparison for education performance is not between states, but between states and our international competitors.”

Even if this part of NSB’s proposal fails, there are other positive elements likely to have impact on STEM education — including calling on NSF to develop a STEM education roadmap for strategic positioning of its programs. We hope that NSF will continue to make STEM education a top issue for the foreseeable future.