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ESEA Should Address the Impact of Child Poverty on STEM Performance | Commentary

By Michael S. Lubell “It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” That was Albert Einstein’s assessment of American education in 1949.  

As Congress prepares to complete reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, members should reflect on Einstein’s judgment, especially when they shine the spotlight on science. Striking the right balance between quantifying outcomes through standardized tests and evaluating creative performance through relatively subjective appraisals is not an easy task. But if we care about the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce of the future, we must get the balance right. And we must understand the extraordinary impact childhood poverty has on science performance.  

Had 9/11 never happened and President George W. Bush not responded by invading Iraq, he might be remembered for his real passion: education. He proposed his signature domestic policy bill, No Child Left Behind, on Jan. 21, 2001, just one day after he was sworn into office. One year later, he signed the bill into law, reauthorizing the ESEA, as preceding presidents had done every five years since it was first enacted as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1965.  

But NCLB put the ESEA on a new footing by mandating statewide standardized testing for all students. To qualify for Title I federal funding under NCLB, schools had to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” — but only in mathematics and reading. A number of STEM advocates warned at the time that teachers would teach to the test and in the process simply snub science.  

And that’s exactly what happened. During the late 1980s and through the mid-1990s, the time elementary school teachers spent on math and science instruction in grades one through four had been increasing modestly. But during the late 1990s, science hours began to slip, and by 2008, seven years into NCLB, they had plunged by almost 25 percent from their 1994 high, declining to their lowest level since 1988, according to the National Center for Education Statistics Schools and Staffing Survey. Not surprisingly, reading and math hours suffered no reductions: reading actually rose by almost 10 percent.  

By 2008, the ESEA had been modified to include science testing. But in the latest reauthorization bills (HR 5 and S 1177), all of STEM education seems to be a child left behind. While the bills, eliminate testing as a requirement for Title I funding — a positive step, Einstein would say — the initial drafts omitted any significant reference to STEM. And although the Senate Education Committee eventually passed an amendment including reauthorization of the Math Science Partnership program, the vote was a narrow 12 to 10. In the House bill, STEM has remained an orphan.  

There is little dispute that 21st century jobs demand increased proficiency in STEM, and that as a nation, we are falling behind our global competitors in those critical areas. That makes the resistance on Capitol Hill all the more puzzling.  

But even if lawmakers wake up, the ESEA may still be far off the mark when it comes to science. Programs such as the Math Science Partnerships, for example, focus on secondary school education, but there is strong evidence that by the time children reach high school age much of their life’s die has already been cast. It is particularly true for science, which by its nature is linear and sequential.  

Still, early engagement is only a partial answer, as a 2010 Department of Health and Human Services study of the Head Start program showed. Head Start, begun as part of the War on Poverty, attempts to improve the school readiness of low-income children. But the 2010 study found that by the end of first grade, the benefits of Head Start are largely absent.  

Robert Putnam’s recent book, “Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis,” provides an insight into why that might be. Putnam, a renowned Harvard political scientist, makes a compelling case that de facto segregation by socioeconomic status in housing and schools is a major contributor to an increasing opportunity gap. Put simply, rich kids succeed, and poor kids get left behind.  

There is little argument today that the jobs of tomorrow will demand scientific and technical skills. And as Linda Darling-Hammond, emeritus professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, has noted, childhood poverty is one of the most important predictors of performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment that includes science and math. On the 2012 PISA test, U.S. students ranked 35th in math and 27th in science, but corrected for poverty, they ranked near the top.  

Childhood poverty is more pervasive in the U.S. than in any other advanced nation. By some estimates, 30 percent of American children live below the poverty line. And among African- and Hispanic-Americans, the percentage is even greater. If we want to compete in a technologically advanced world with a diverse STEM workforce, we must provide social structures that give our poorer kids the support they need to succeed.  

Head Start is a good start, but as Putnam has shown and the HHS 2010 study demonstrated, the support must continue as children progress throughout their school years. The ESEA Reauthorization Act should call on the National Academy of Sciences to provide a roadmap for solving our growing poverty-driven STEM workforce deficiencies.  

Michael S. Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky Professor of Physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society. 

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