In this report we identify three types of criteria that can be used to identify successful STEM schools: criteria related to outcomes, criteria related to school types, and criteria related to instruction and school-level practices.
The strongest research comes from criteria related to practices, where the evidence allowed the committee to characterize effective STEM instruction, identify key elements that contribute to effective instruction, and identify school characteristics that support learning. Effective STEM instruction capitalizes on students’ early interest and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, engages them in STEM practices, and provides them with experiences to sustain their interest. Key elements that contribute to effective STEM instruction include a coherent set of standards and curriculum, teachers with high capacity, a supportive system of assessment and accountability, adequate instructional time, and equal access to quality STEM learning opportunities. The research also suggests that effective elementary schools share common elements, namely, strong leadership, professional capacity among teachers, strong ties to parents and the community, a student-centered learning climate, and instructional guidance for teachers. These elements have been shown to support learning gains even in schools in areas of extreme poverty and hardship.
With respect to criteria related to schools, we identified three types of STEM-focused schools (selective, inclusive, and CTE) that have different goals, strategies, and student populations—all with the potential to improve STEM learning. Because of the challenges with conducting causal research on these schools, little research is available that demonstrates the effectiveness of STEM-focused schools in comparison with other schools or that contrasts the relative effectiveness of their different approaches on a variety of student outcomes. As a result, the committee is not able to identify a distinct set of criteria related to STEM-focused schools themselves. However, these schools do offer a range of compelling models for the ways that the various effective STEM practices can be combined into a working whole. Hence, these schools provide an important resource for extending the implementation of effective STEM practices—to individual students and throughout entire districts and states.
Finally, a wide variety of outcomes can be used as criteria to identify successful schools, though it should be noted that outcomes alone do not provide insight into the practices that contribute to success. Powerful new research is being conducted using longitudinal data on student achievement; among other things, such research will provide a systematic and inclusive way to define schools that have positive student outcomes. Such research should be broadened to include outcomes other than student test scores, graduation rates, and data on the effective STEM practices we have identified. In the years ahead, this approach could provide a much more comprehensive analysis of the relative effectiveness of different schools in promoting STEM and the reasons for the differences across schools.
In many respects, effective practices for STEM are closely related to effective practices for education in general. This is not surprising. Still, it is important to pay attention to these practices in STEM because the research suggests that some strategies are unique to STEM learning and some challenges particularly affect success in STEM. STEM education is vital to our nation’s continued growth, leadership, and development, but this report has documented some important shortcomings that could hinder our progress. Drawing on these findings, we propose a series of next steps at the local, state, and national levels to strengthen K-12 STEM education.