The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education within the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held an April 10 hearing to review federal investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs. This hearing was particularly timely since it was held on the same day as the release of the President’s budget request which significantly restructures the role of federal science agencies in STEM education.
“There is a widespread concern that our nation’s preeminence in science and innovation is eroding,” stated Ioannis Miaoulis, President and Director of the Museum of Science, Boston.
This bipartisan concern set the discussion tone for the hearing as both sides of the aisle acknowledged problems with achievement gaps and the availability of STEM workers to fill job openings. Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita (R-IN) opened the hearing by citing many statistics about the availability of STEM jobs and the large earning potential for students with a STEM background. He was particularly focused on a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in which the agency investigated 209 federal STEM programs at 13 federal agencies. That report, noted Rokita, found that 83 percent of federal STEM education programs overlap and many programs lack a strategic plan or some form of accountability standards. Rokita went on to cite a 2010 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology which found that “STEM education programs across several agencies lack coherent vision or careful oversight of goals and outcomes.” His primary concern was about the return on investment for US taxpayers as he stressed the need to evaluate existing STEM resources to determine their effectiveness.
Ranking Member Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) shared Rokita’s concern that the US is “not faring as well as we could be compared to other countries.” She offered a suggestion that the proportion of funding for K-12 STEM education is significantly less than the proportion of funding for post-secondary STEM education. While she agreed that redundancy between federal programs should require that programs be aligned, she cited a 2012 GAO study that concluded federal STEM programs were not necessarily redundant since they served different student groups. “Scaling back federal investment is not sound policy for education,” she stated, noting that eliminating programs would only further reduce the limited resources available for elementary and secondary STEM education.
Four witnesses testified. George Scott, Director of Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues at the GAO reported that while Congress has created STEM education programs, little is known about how well these programs are working. Currently, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education receive over half of all federal STEM education funding. Scott provided Members of the Subcommittee with the advantages and disadvantages of the current system of multiple agencies working on STEM education, namely that the agencies are able to address their own program needs and attract employees but that achieving a coherent national approach to STEM education is challenging. He stated that the Administration has made some progress addressing the recommendations made by the GAO to improve federal STEM education and evaluation. The development of a strategic plan is a crucial step in aligning agency efforts and concentrating resources on programs which effectively advance the defined strategies, he noted.
Miaoulis focused his testimony on describing the National Center for Technology Literacy which was established in 2004 at the Boston Museum of Science. He described the need for the creation of a K-12 engineering curriculum and how the Center provides teacher professional development in engineering design process. Miaoulis noted that most K-12 science curriculum focusses on natural science topics rather than human-made engineering topics as he stressed the need to further develop relevant, hands-on student activities.
Steve Schneider, Senior Director of the STEM Program at WestEd addressed the imbalance between the national focus on mathematics versus science, technology and engineering. Because mathematics is tested in schools it has received much attention and funding, but the other STEM disciplines have not received the same level of resources, he noted. He stressed the need for professional development for science, technology and engineering particularly as the US moves to implement Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
Bill Kurtz, Chief Executive Officer of Denver School of Science and Technology Public Schools, also testified and provided information about his work with charter schools.
Members’ questions to witnesses focused on engaging students, increasing participation in STEM and the organization of federal STEM programs. Public-private partnerships were also discussed in the context of their effectiveness in increasing student interest in STEM.