PCAST Reviews STEM Education

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Publication date: 
6 November 2009

On October 22-23, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met for the second time to discuss science related issues facing the nation. PCAST turned its attention to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, receiving briefings on the government’s efforts to encourage STEM careers and an update from Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan.

While the focus of the PCAST meeting was primarily STEM education, PCAST also addressed the role of science and technology in foreign policy. Discussion of those topics can be viewed here.

In his opening remarks PCAST Co-Chair Eric Lander explained the importance President Obama gives STEM education saying, “The President has clearly said that amongst his highest domestic priorities is [sic] of course, healthcare, energy and climate but right up there with that top three is STEM education, because STEM education is basically fundamental to the long term economic success of this country, its fundamental to so many of the challenges we have to face including health and energy and climate.”

Lander went on to say that PCAST as a whole had discussed the importance of STEM education and, “really does wish to attend to the issue... very soon….” Referring to the multitude of federal STEM education programs, Lander said, “many of us as observers are not entirely sure what all those lines are doing.” Lander also said that agencies needed to assess whether their STEM education program were “at the critical mass,” and “coordinated well enough to really be able to make a difference.”

While many individuals addressed PCAST, comments from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Department of Education stand out.

Kathryn Stack, Deputy Associate Director of Education and Human Resources at OMB gave PCAST an overview of current federal programs noting that there are presently 109 individual STEM programs accounting for $3.6 billion in spending. Stack explained that a recent review of those programs found “no uniformity at all” in terms of evaluations of effectiveness.

Stack also made reference to an October 7, 2009 memorandum from OMB Director Peter Orszag that outlines efforts to strengthen program evaluations as part of the Fiscal Year 2011 Budget process. Some of the ideas outlined in that memo include the creation of a new inter-agency working group to “promote stronger evaluations,” and a voluntary initiative for agencies to prove that their priorities are evidence-based.

During the following question and answer period Stack said in regards to agencies’ capacity to review their programs, “We hope that the agencies can kind of feed us what we need which means they need to have to start getting their infrastructure in place to get that.”

Duncan’s comments on day two of the PCAST meeting stressed the importance of STEM subjects to the Administration, but did not answer essential questions that will underline the imminent reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Duncan began by noting the “disturbing” performance of U.S. students in international standardized testing, notably the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, see FYI# 121). Duncan also explained that the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores for math “did not show progress.”

To improve test scores, Duncan said that the Department of Education will invest in “new curriculum,” “extended time to make science more interesting and more relevant,” and a new “national STEM innovation agenda and network to share best practices.” Duncan also said he will look to recruit teachers with “deep content knowledge” through systems of variable pay for teachers in “high need” subjects like science.

During a question and answer period, Lander asked Duncan, among other questions, if there is, “within the Department of Education, a person - an office - that really focuses on STEM?” Duncan did not answer that specific question, but noted several problems, including the nation’s staggering dropout rate, that his department hopes to address.

James Gates, Co-Chair of the subcommittee of PCAST that will examine STEM education asked Duncan, “What do you see as the role of NCLB playing as we move forward…?”

Duncan asked PCAST for their thoughts on NCLB and suggested that student improvement is a better indication of academic growth than the results of a single test. Duncan also said that “there’s been a huge concern amongst parents and teachers that under NCLB there’s been a narrowing of the curriculum, that what gets tested gets taught, and so, while math and reading are obviously hugely important and foundational, I worry tremendously about the loss of science, engineering.”

Following his comments on the narrowing curriculum, Duncan asked, “How do we create the incentives so that children have a well rounded curriculum, and it doesn’t just mean more science and more engineering, art and dance and drama and music and all those things that get unfortunately taken away?” Duncan said that he did not have any definitive answers.

PCAST will next meet January 7-8, 2010 to discuss as yet undeclared topics.