STEM Learning with Gwen's Girls / Photo by Ben Filio

Poor Schools Face “Double Disadvantage” in STEM Education

Only twenty-six percent of high school seniors in the U.S. attend schools that offer some type of computer science course.

This stark statistic, among other inequities that exist between high- and low-poverty schools, appears in a brief entitled “Ending the Double Disadvantage: Ensuring STEM Opportunities in Our Poorest Schools,” published by Change The Equation (CTEq).

CTEq is a Washington, D.C.- based non-profit, non-partisan coalition of corporate leaders, educators, and policy advocates that convened in 2010 as a result of President Obama’s call to “strengthen America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation.” Its board of directors includes CEOs from some of the world’s most influential companies: Intel, Time Warner, Eastman Kodak, DuPont, Exxon Mobil, among others, with a goal toward improving STEM literacy for all children in the U.S.

As tech leaders looking toward the future for the next generation of employees, CTEq has reason to sound the alarm. The brief illustrates how, and (more importantly) to what extent, students who attend high-poverty schools are being left behind.

Using data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education, CTEq defines high-poverty schools as those where three-quarters or more of enrolled students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. By that definition, 2015 data shows a full twenty-five percent of all U.S. school children attend high-poverty schools.

According to the report, these students attend schools that lack lab space, don’t offer a full range of STEM courses, and don’t have adequate equipment to conduct experiments; in other words, the basics which low-poverty districts would consider foundational necessities.

  • 47 percent of fourth graders at high-poverty schools do a hands-on experiment once per week, compared to 61 percent of students in low-poverty schools
  • 62 percent of eighth grade teachers at high-poverty schools report having the resources they need to teach math, while 79 percent of their low-poverty-district counterparts do
  • 23 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools hold math degrees, while 31 percent in low-poverty schools do
  • 52 percent of high-poverty schools offer a statistics class, while 88 percent of wealthier schools do
  • 39 percent of high-poverty schools offer Advanced Placement Physics compared to 75 percent of high-income schools

These inequities have dire consequences for high-poverty-school students as they enter the workforce, unable to compete for jobs and ill-prepared for the technological demands of the 21st century.

As CTEq’s report demonstrates, “students in such schools suffer disadvantage upon disadvantage over the course of their schooling, and they face dim prospects for rewarding STEM careers.”

Although achieving equal access to STEM education may seem unattainable, there are solutions.

Locally, high schoolers can apply to attend INVESTING NOW, a program run through the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. Since 1988, the program has offered a “continuous pipeline for students from groups traditionally underrepresented to prepare for, enter, and graduate from the University of Pittsburgh as STEM majors.”

The program achieves its goals by providing individualized academic advising, SAT preparation, private tutoring with a Pitt undergrad, college planning workshops, hands-on projects in physics, engineering, and chemistry, and more.

In 2016, one hundred percent of INVESTING NOW’s high school seniors went on to college. More than half of them chose STEM majors.

According to Dr. Alaine Allen, INVESTING NOW’s Director, “Forming relationships with students and coaching them along the way to get into college is what we have observed has the most impact.”

Making sure they are challenging themselves throughout their high school careers, Dr. Allen says, is the key. If a student attends a high-poverty school, INVESTING NOW guides him or her to take the most rigorous courses available, sign up for extracurricular activities to gain STEM exposure, or plug into research as a supplement to academics to make them competitive.

The report points to ASSET STEM Education, which is based in Pittsburgh and is an active member of the Remake Learning Network, along with Science in Motion and the Amgen Biotech Experience as exemplary organizations working on the national level to help high-poverty schools acquire STEM resources and provide extra professional development to teachers.

College students majoring in STEM can earn teaching certificates “without adding time or cost to four-year degrees” through new programs like UTeach, a Texas-born initiative that’s spreading across the country.

State accountability systems can make science a priority by measuring educational outcomes, the same way reading and math outcomes are analyzed. As CTEq reports, “If science gets measured, it’s more likely to get taught.”

In the meantime, local efforts like the Pittsburgh Regional STEM Ecosystem and the Carnegie Science Center STEM Excellence Pathway are taking active steps to expand access to high-quality STEM learning, and programs like Citizen Science Lab (whose annual STEAMabration is coming up this Saturday!) are bringing STEM learning to children and communities in need.