Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough?

This is a follow-up to an earlier post:

     Obama’s STEM education initiatives were formally proposed last week with the unveiling of his budget for fiscal year 2013. The purpose of these initiatives is to train 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2020 as well as generate 1 million new STEM graduates as part of a broader plan designed to make America the leading innovator of STEM technologies. Obama’s STEM initiatives face several problems however, the biggest being the fat chance that his budget, which rings in at $3.8 billion, gets approved by Congress. And just for argument’s sake, let’s say his budget does get passed, will his STEM initiatives be enough to counteract the affects of the recession on science and math education/achievement? Or are we effectively fighting the tide without knowing how to swim?

How the recession effects academic achievement

     The early effects of the Great Recession that officially started in December 2007 were dominated by the collapse of the real estate market and the subsequent fall of several Wall St institutions. The panic that hit the banking industry quickly spread through the country, compounded by rising oil and food prices as well as unemployment. Although, the recession itself, was a short-lived event (ending in the Summer of 2009) the lingering effects of the recession can still be felt. At the time of this post, the US employment rate was still high at 8.3%. Now four plus years out from the recession, the economy is still sluggish albeit showing signs of slow recovery.

     Long-term effects of the recession can also be felt in education. One particular area that the Economic Policy Institute identifies as being “economically scarred” is academic achievement. There report indicates that “Unemployment and income losses can reduce educational achievement by threatening early childhood nutrition; reducing families’ abilities to provide a supportive learning environment (including adequate health care, summer activities, and stable housing); and by forcing a delay or abandonment of college plans.” Echoing the EPI’s findings, the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study measuring the effects of statewide job loss on student achievement concluding that “job losses decrease scores,” particularly in math. Not to mention that “Elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding than last year in at least 37 states, and in at least 30 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels – often far below.

Rhode Island NECAP scores

     Given that the recession really took a turn for the worse in September 2008, we now have a 3+year-cohort of students (of various grades) whose standardized test scores we can track.  Rhode Island participates in the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP, often pronounced knee-cap), which is a series of standardized tests that measure student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science. Other states that take part of the NECAPs are New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Using RI as an example, I compiled RI’s math and science test scores from 2008-2011 (available from the RI Department of Elementary and Secondary Education):

     One would have expected worsening scores, however, year-over-year math and science scores either improved or stayed roughly the same for each grade. Either the recession had no effects on RI NECAP scores or the scores are a lagging indicator of recession effects. We have to keep in mind that unemployment did not hit its peak (~10%) until October 2009 and that state education budget cuts were not cut until about a year or two ago. Therefore, it would be imperative to track NECAP scores beyond 2012.

     Of course this exercise is not meant to discredit the effects of the recession on academic achievement. What we see in RI is by no means indicative of trends in math and science scores across the country. It should be noted that the RI education budget changes (FY08 to FY12) are on the lower end (see chart above) and also that RI is among the few states increasing its education budget over last year (FY11):

Are you an education policy expert? Or do you have particular insights into the effects of recession on math and science education? Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me: amasianv@gmail.com. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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One response to “Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough?

  1. Pingback: Improving STEM Education « Amasian Science·

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