Does attending an inclusive STEM-focused high school have long-term effects on students? A study conducted by SRI Education and George Washington University aims to find out. The iSTEM research project, with funding from the National Science Foundation, is touted as “the first large-scale controlled longitudinal study of the impacts of inclusive STEM high schools in the United States.” To find out more about the study’s findings so far, we contacted Barbara Means, formerly the director of the Center for Technology and Learning at SRI International and a principal investigator on the study. Dr. Means is currently the executive director for learning sciences research at Digital Promise, an organization that works to improve learning through technology:
Q: What, in general, were the conclusions drawn from your multi-state study on the effectiveness of inclusive STEM-focused high schools?
A: We are still awaiting data concerning college outcome from North Carolina and Ohio higher-education systems, but the data we have secured and analyzed for students who attended inclusive STEM high schools in Texas demonstrate that these schools are fulfilling their primary mission.
Two years after high school graduation, Texas students who attended an inclusive STEM high school are more likely than similar students who attended non-STEM high schools to still be in the “STEM pipeline” — that is, to have declared a STEM major at a four-year college.
Analyses of student high school experiences and grade 12 outcomes for students in both North Carolina and Texas found a number of impacts of attending an inclusive STEM high school that might lay the foundation for greater persistence in STEM studies at the college level. Students who attend inclusive STEM high schools undertake more advanced STEM coursework, have higher test scores in science and express more interest in STEM careers as 12th-graders than do students with similar grade eight achievement and demographic characteristics who attend non-STEM high schools.
Q: How would you define an inclusive STEM-focused school? What did the schools you studied have in common, and how did they differ from other STEM-focused schools?
A: For purposes of our research, we defined an inclusive STEM-focused high school (ISHS) as a secondary school (1) providing all of its students with a more intensive STEM curriculum than that required for high school graduation in their state and district, and (2) using a nonselective admissions process (either open admissions or admission by lottery).
In all, we studied 49 inclusive STEM high schools, and, except for the defining attributes cited above, they varied in their instructional approach and curriculum emphasis. Nearly all of the ISHSs in our sample would be categorized as “schools of choice” in that students had to indicate their desire to attend them in an application or lottery process, but there were a few exceptions that were the only public high school in their districts.
Most, but not quite all, of the inclusive STEM high schools in our study were small in size (125 or fewer students per grade level). Some were charter schools, but many were not. Some were formed out of public high schools that were in need of improvement.
The mission of serving students from groups underrepresented in STEM fields set these schools off from selective STEM high schools such as the Bronx High School of Science or the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. ISHSs aim to develop STEM talent rather than select for it.
The fact that both students and staff choose to be part of an inclusive school with this distinctive mission combining social equity and rigorous STEM content appears to breed a distinctive school culture of high expectations coupled with pervasive student supports.
Hear from the students
In addition to studying student outcomes, the researchers also created a series of “Day in the Life” profiles of study participants. Videos of these case studies are available here.
Q: Who attends these schools, and what, in general, is their impact on their students?
A: The STEM-focused schools we studied were attended by large proportions of students from groups underrepresented in STEM.
In North Carolina, for example, our sample of ISHS students from the class of 2013 was 50 percent African American and 63 percent from families where neither parent had earned a bachelor’s degree.
In Texas, our ISHS students from the class of 2014 were 67 percent Hispanic and 71 percent first-generation students (neither parent with a bachelor’s degree).
In Ohio, our ISHS sample from the class of 2015 was 57 percent African American and 68 percent low income.
Impacts of the ISHS experience on students overall were described in response to the first question. For subgroups, African-American students in North Carolina took more advanced math and science courses, participated in more STEM extracurricular and informal activities and had stronger science identities if they attended an inclusive STEM high school.
In Texas, Hispanic students attending ISHSs took more advanced math courses, participated in more STEM extracurricular and informal activities, had stronger science identities and were more interested in STEM careers than their counterparts who attended non-STEM high schools.
Q: Do state policies, in general, help or hurt inclusive STEM high schools?
A: Some state policies support STEM high schools while others make it more difficult to establish and sustain them.
In each of the states where we conducted our research (North Carolina, Texas and Ohio) there was some level of public-private partnership to support multiple inclusive STEM high schools. In some cases, these partnerships provided early-stage funding to start new ISHSs. (This is important because new schools that start small with a single grade level have low enrollments and hence very limited per-pupil state funding in their initial years). These partnerships also provided professional support (in the form of coaching and teacher training) for STEM school staff.
On the other hand, state pressure around performance on state achievement tests that are not well aligned with college preparatory STEM courses can take attention and resources away from the kind of teaching and learning needed for these schools to fulfill their core mission.
A state’s charter-school policies can have a big effect also; it is more difficult to start an inclusive STEM high school in a state that limits the number of charter schools.
Q: Based on your study, what recommendations would you make for stakeholders in STEM-based education?
A: I believe that inclusive STEM high schools can be a worthwhile policy initiative for states trying to build the STEM capacity of their citizens. I would recommend that stakeholders:
- Connect economic development and education strategies, preferably at the state level. Public-private partnerships have been important in inspiring and supporting many ISHSs. Connecting a strategy to broaden STEM education opportunities with a strategy to build a competitive regional or state workforce enhances the relevance of the education program and attracts additional political and financial support.
- Articulate an inclusive STEM high school mission and design principles and hold schools to them. Blueprints or frameworks that describe essential design principles for ISHSs can increase the likelihood that schools with a STEM name will be substantively different from typical high schools and that they will serve significant numbers of students from groups underrepresented in STEM. States or other sponsoring organizations also should follow up on schools’ execution of the design principles. This can be done through a school designation process. For example, Texas removed the T-STEM designation from several schools that changed the mix of students they enrolled such that they were no longer serving the target proportion of underrepresented students.
- Give ISHS leaders latitude and decision authority in selecting school staff. ISHS leaders and teachers need to believe that all of their students can master a STEM-rich college preparatory curriculum. They need strategies for supporting students who struggle with difficult content and the ability to motivate students and help them acquire skills of self-regulation. When recruiting faculty, ISHS school leaders select for this set of competencies as well as for STEM expertise and the ability to provide student-centered instruction. They should not be forced to hire or lay off teachers on the basis of seniority. The supply of qualified STEM teachers can be enlarged by policies allowing alternative credentialing processes for midcareer changers with STEM work experience and by providing differential salary scales for teachers in hard-to- staff STEM subject areas.
Q: How will this study affect your work at Digital Promise?
A: One very direct effect is that I will be continuing this work at Digital Promise as more data on postsecondary outcomes for our North Carolina and Ohio samples become available. More generally, I want to continue doing research on education innovations that are powerful enough to change students’ lives for the better.
Many of the innovations we try in education — and certainly many of those involving technology — are one-off experiences that might be inspirational and effective at teaching one narrow concept but are unlikely to change the course of a student’s educational trajectory in a way that will have a lasting impact. The desire to be part of more consequential education initiatives will guide my choice of research projects and partners.