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Key element: Equal access to high-quality STEM learning opportunities. The achievement gaps among students from different socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups are well documented.71 Many factors contribute to these gaps, including poverty, but we focused on some of the structural inequalities that states, schools, and districts have the potential to address. For example, disparities in teacher expectations and other school and classroom-level factors, such as access to adequate laboratory facilities, resources, and supplies, contribute to gaps in science achievement for underrepresented groups.72 Similar structural inequities hinder the mathematics learning of underrepresented minorities and low-income students, such as disparities in access to well-trained or credentialed teachers, less rigorous educational courses, and ability tracking in the early grades.73 In mathematics, these inequalities can have cumulative effects as students progress through grades K-12 because mathematics is a gatekeeper to academic opportunity.74

Policies to ensure that well-prepared teachers are placed in all classrooms can redress the imbalance in access to qualified teachers that currently exists between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition, although “detracking”—creating classrooms with students of mixed abilities—is often proposed as a solution to unequal learning opportunities in schools, the research evidence suggests that this approach is not always beneficial. For instance, when detracking fails to provide challenging learning opportunities for all students, low-income and minority students may have the most to lose because they often lack academic support outside school that could compensate for weak instruction in school.75 However, cases of successful detracking do exist, and they suggest that supplemental instruction for low-achieving students (such as through tutoring or extra class sessions) makes it possible to offer challenging instruction to all students in mixed-ability settings.76

SCHOOL CONDITIONS AND CULTURES THAT SUPPORT LEARNING

Strong teachers and focused, rigorous, and coherent curricula are certainly important factors to improve student learning in STEM. However, school and community conditions also affect what is taught, how it is taught, and with which results. Research suggests that although teacher qualifications matter, the school context—its culture and conditions—matters just as much, if not more. As an example, research conducted in several school districts over 10 years highlights teacher learning communities as among the most powerful sources of improvement in teacher and student learning and identify multiple factors that strengthen and sustain those learning communities (e.g., school and district leaders, parents, and community).77



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