In this era of COVID-19, educators have faced immense challenges and responded with incredible resilience, and with innovative ideas to continue to support our students. A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to some of these challenges—and some possible solutions—during a virtual event on STEM 101 for new members of Congress and their staff, hosted by the National Science Teaching Association and the STEM Education Coalition.
First, we continue to face extreme challenges in providing broadband access to all students. We do not have equitable structures underlying society, and the move to virtual learning really brought that home. Trying to connect to class on a cell phone from a fast-food restaurant parking lot is not access.
Second, we also do not have sufficient, high-quality instructional materials in science and STEM, particularly materials that can be readily adapted to an online environment. Virtual teaching tools are relatively easy to learn how to implement, but effective instruction is not. We generally lack materials that meaningfully integrate disciplines or include thoughtful projects. Many teachers do not know how, or feel like they cannot, adapt materials to connect to local, community-based issues that engage kids.
We have, however, heard amazing success stories throughout the pandemic. Educators deserve immense appreciation and praise. For example, some schools send STEM equipment home or have students pick it up with a lunch. Some educators have students engaged in virtual, collaborative projects or do inventive outdoor learning. But, it is clear that virtual and hybrid spaces have not been as effective as in-person learning for most students, and new tech tools alone will not solve that.
So, moving forward, COVID-era education efforts clearly show a need for investment in broadband and high-quality instruction materials that can be adapted for various learning environments. Additionally, in order to address ongoing shortcomings in our STEM education efforts, I see at least six main areas where federal education practice and policy can make a difference for all of our children:
- Advocate: We need to bring back the White House Science Fair and make it a STEM fair. Having children doing science and STEM with the President is inspiring and sends a positive message about the value of science, especially at the elementary level. The administration could also do more to celebrate STEM teachers, such as (again) hosting and celebrating the winners of the White House’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
- Create an upper-level STEM Education Coordinator position at the U.S. Department of Education: This person would be critical in coherence - connecting and aligning educational efforts across federal agencies and with key STEM coordinators at OSTP. In Wisconsin, as a case in point, we have no state person with an official STEM leadership role, and we’ve lacked organization and unity because of it. Like in Wisconsin, we need legislation to create this position. We need someone who can pull together a one-stop shop of Federal STEM education support and can work with stakeholders in the states; it is too difficult to navigate all that is happening across the federal government in STEM right now.
- Emphasize elementary STEM & science: These subjects continue to be a low priority in most school districts. Children often develop a STEM identity in elementary school. If we do not get them seeing themselves as a STEM person during the early years of their education, it’s often too late. Federal education policy, such as ESEA, continues to emphasize mathematics and literacy, so much so that many districts have limited emphasis on anything else. Current research has found that rich learning in science and social studies is critical for literacy learning, but these subjects remain stuck in their low priority siloes. Integrated learning needs further support, and we need to figure out how to mitigate the feeling that all subject areas are competing for time. Federal programs need to provide additional, quality resources into elementary educators’ hands. We need to examine how to shift ESSA Title and assessment policies that would allow for greater emphasis on science and STEM (described further below).
- Shift Federal ESSA Title programs: Title I limits districts to using “research-based” programs for mathematics and literacy. I have seen some of these programs in action. They are often painfully dull and hurt kids’ interest in learning. The research behind them was often funded by the companies selling these products. Implementation needs more flexibility, particularly to better engage students. Title II used to have dedicated funds for effective math, science, and STEM professional learning. When Title IIB funds left and IIA funds became more flexible, we almost completely lost sustained, university-supported teacher learning in science and STEM. Finally, while Title IV has fabulous provisions for STEM spending, STEM and science is often not prioritized by district; they also need more examples of how these funds could be used effectively.
- Make every goal link to equity: Everything done in the K-12 policy world needs a stronger emphasis on equity and access. For the most part, we are not making good progress for students from underrepresented groups. We are not closing opportunity gaps. And, there is no easy fix, it requires systems thinking. Federal grant programs, educator resources, and messaging from agencies could all better highlight how they are helping all students to build a STEM identity, to connect to their community, and to access exceptional opportunities.
- Innovate: Federal policy does not truly support innovation at scale. For example, in the state assessment space, there has been some allowance for more innovation, but there are too many constraints and not enough supports to have seen much uptick there. Current large-scale assessments, with budgets limiting their questioning options, continue to drive what is emphasized in the classroom, but they are not consistent with the full vision we have for our children. We need further support for innovative assessments. Standardized testing should not go away but could further reduce budgets by sampling groups of students rather than test them all. It could also shift emphasis to multi-level systems of assessment that are better able to provide more meaningful information about individual students.