Students need more than just more courses

Type the words “STEM crisis” into Google, and it spits back nearly 30,000 results for articles chronicling the current state of science and mathematics preparation among American students and workers. Whether there is a crisis or not is a matter of debate, at least according to the Google results, but what’s not in dispute is the fact that American students are trailing their international peers when it comes to STEM skills and knowledge.

To counteract this trend and to ensure that students are prepared for STEM careers, many states have increased the number of math and science courses students must take in order to graduate from high school, according to a new ACT Research & Policy policy brief by Richard Buddin and Michelle Croft. The brief examined the effects of one such effort in Illinois, which in 2005 passed a law establishing a minimum high school graduation requirement of three years of math and two years of science.

Buddin and Croft found that the introduction of more rigorous graduation requirements had little effect on student course taking, achievement or college enrollment. It’s not enough to require certain courses, the authors noted, as students must be adequately prepared in order to be successful in the more advanced classes.

“Course requirements alone may not be sufficient mechanism for change. Exposing students to advanced material is an important first step, but we must recognize that better preparation, better instruction, better student commitment, better parent support, and a host of other factors are needed for students to master these advanced skills,” the authors concluded.

Here at Mass Insight, we wholeheartedly agree. We’ve had great success over the last six years working with more than 70 partner high schools across Massachusetts to increase student participation in and performance on Advanced Placement STEM courses. In that time, both student participation and student performance has more than doubled. The success of the program has led to its expansion beyond state lines to the Jefferson Parish Public School System in Louisiana.

Yet we didn’t achieve those results by opening the doors to AP courses for more students and then just letting them sink or swim. We supplement their classroom experience with additional learning time in our Saturday Study Sessions, and we provide teachers with rigorous professional development opportunities to improve the quality of their instruction.

We also recognize that to really increase the number of students prepared for AP courses in high school, we have to start earlier than high school – and that’s we also focus on teacher training at the middle school level. Increasing the instructional quality and academic rigor students are receiving in middle school will set those students up to be successful in advanced courses in high school.

Buddin and Croft’s findings really shouldn’t take anyone by surprise: if there’s one thing we know to be true in education, it’s that there are no silver bullets. Raising the expectations bar is an excellent first step – but that has to be paired with student support and teacher training to ensure that all students have a shot at meeting that bar.