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In the Nation's Interest

Let 2019 Be the Year of Quality in STEM Education

by Claus Van Zastrow January 15, 2019

Consider it one of the nation’s most important New Year’s resolutions: The White House released the federal government’s strategic plan for STEM education in the coming years, reaffirming its commitment to fostering a diverse and vigorous STEM workforce. The plan contains much to delight business leaders: its calls for work-based learning, innovation and entrepreneurship, and computational literacy line up with enduring business priorities.

One of the plan’s most important themes goes to the very DNA of good business practice: the report promotes transparency and accountability, decisions based in evidence, and a focus on ROI. The success of the nation’s STEM education efforts may well depend on how eagerly public, private, and corporate funders embrace this approach.

In 2012, business leaders came together to bring transparency and evidence to Corporate Social Responsibility in STEM education. Fortune 500 CEOs charged Change the Equation, a non-profit coalition of business leaders, with creating a platform for identifying and scaling STEM programs that could prove their effectiveness.

Change the Equation convened a committee of corporate representatives with deep roots in education to create STEMworks, a searchable online honor roll of programs that have been carefully vetted for quality. STEMworks has since moved to WestEd, a nonprofit research and evaluation organization, but it continues to be one of the nation’s few sources of vetted education strategies, featuring more than 100 of the nation’s most effective STEM programs, both in and out of school.

All programs in the STEMworks database align with rigorous principles for what works in STEM education. These programs must demonstrate success in areas such as capacity to address critical need, sustainability, ability to scale, and rigorous evaluation. Programs must also offer challenging content, incorporate hands-on practices, inspire interest in STEM, and address the needs of girls, students of color, and members of other groups that are traditionally less likely to pursue STEM fields.

This focus on transparency and ROI can help companies address the unintended consequences of the STEM movement’s success. STEM has captured the public imagination over the past ten years, but its long-term impact will depend in large part on funders’ ability to identify the most effective programs and strategies.

By some measures, the STEM movement has been very successful, indeed. The STEM acronym, which few people outside of education circles understood a decade ago, now appears in news headlines almost daily and has all but entered the common lexicon. In the past decade, most states have adopted groundbreaking new science standards that focus on hands-on inquiry and engineering, and dozens have passed laws expanding access to computer science in schools.

These changes have fueled an industry of STEM education solutions, from curriculum and teacher training to robotics and instructional technology. Generous corporate donations have supported this work from the start. As far back as 2009, Change the Equation companies alone pumped at least $750 million into STEM education programming, and billions more have since flowed from private and corporate foundations alone.

Are most programs delivering a robust return on their investment? Don’t count on it. Less than one third of the hundreds WestEd has reviewed have cleared the STEMworks bar.

The federal STEM plan ends with a “clarion call” for national collaboration to “amplify the impact of the wider community’s efforts.” By embracing the business community’s longstanding commitment to quality and impact, it offers a critical strategy for doing so.