Issue Date: February 1, 2016
Science Education Turns To The States
The first major rewrite of federal K–12 education law in a decade includes important new nods to science. But whether U.S. science education ends up getting a major boost will depend largely on how states decide to spend federal grant money.
President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in December 2015. It replaces the President George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, which was unpopular among both Republicans and Democrats for its mandatory testing and punishments for failing schools.
The new law takes that stick out of the hand of federal officials and gives the power to state education departments. They will choose standards and testing regimens and decide how to distribute a broad swath of federal funds.
For science education, the law is likely good news. Although it eliminates one popular science education program, it gives state officials access to much more money that they can choose to spend on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The law also retains mandatory science testing, which science education advocates said was necessary if the discipline were to receive attention.
When 2015 began, no one was sure whether a K–12 education bill would pass because one had been in the works for years. But that’s when science education reformers started ramping up their efforts.
“We didn’t want to be on the sidelines if a deal came together,” remembers James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition. That group of companies, nonprofit organizations, and professional societies—including the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN—advocates for improved science education.
Last July, the House of Representatives passed an education bill that included almost no mention of science. So science advocates focused intensely on the Senate.
Lauren Posey, who works on education policy issues for ACS, asked ACS’s Society Committee on Education members for help pushing for more science in the measure.
That led three ACS members—University of Illinois, Chicago, chemistry professor Donald Wink; Harold Washington College physical sciences professor Thomas Higgins; and College of DuPage emeritus professor Susan M. Shih—to write a letter to their senator supporting science education.
Posey says the letter made a difference. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) signed on to cosponsor the education measure soon after receiving it. Wink says he understands why hearing from a scientist constituent might help. “Politicians are like academics. They like to be able to reference someone else,” he says.
The House and Senate compromise bill that became law leaves most education decisions to states, both for testing and for funding programs.
Reading and math will still be the main testing focus with assessments required yearly between third and eighth grades and once in high school. Science testing is required less often—once each in elementary, middle, and high school—but even that was an achievement because it was not included in the House proposal, explains Jodi Peterson, assistant executive director at the National Science Teachers Association.
“For years we’ve seen science classes and science curriculum pushed to the side because there was so much focus on math and reading,” Peterson says. Testing means that states will have to put at least part of their efforts into science.
Funding will largely be in the form of block grants to states. Although there is no money set aside specifically for science education, the good news is that the law prominently mentions science among the ways states can use funds for student enrichment and professional development activities.
“The leverage is there to use the dollars in a way that they couldn’t before,” Brown says.
For the first time, enrichment could get federal funding. That’s important for science because those activities could include science competitions, after-school science clubs, and lab development, for example.
That’s also true for STEM teacher recruitment and training, which has $4.65 billion authorized in the bill. Possible programs could include new ways to recruit science teachers, STEM-specific training, and creating a STEM Master Teacher Corps.
The new law eliminates one professional development program with broad science support, the Mathematics & Science Partnerships. That program gave federal grants to pair university professors with K–12 teachers to improve education. But it was essentially the only science funding in No Child Left Behind.
The new law could end up being far better for science because the funding opportunities are much more extensive. But that will depend on getting the word out to states. Many states will also need to boost their science teaching staffs because most previous money was focused on reading and math.
Science education advocates have some time. Although some programs will go into effect in the fall of 2016, most of the law will be enacted in the 2017–18 school year.
And they are hopeful that state education administrators, legislators, and the public will choose more science for K–12 students.
ACS’s Posey says, “States know that science is where the jobs are.”
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