By Joseph Gaffney
Last week, President Trump signed a memo directing the Secretary of Education to prioritize Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education for K-12 students, including the allocation of $200,000,000 a year toward STEM education. Along with allocating funds, the Secretary of Education is also directed to produce guidance documents and technical assistance to support the goals of this initiative. A focus on STEM subjects is not new, as former President Obama made several pledges to encourage STEM education through grant funds and by securing private investments.
The President’s memo argues that the skills acquired through STEM education are becoming increasingly necessary for individuals to qualify for high-paying jobs in the US and that while the system as a whole has room for growth, certain groups of children in particular are not being adequately served. The memo cites statistics showing that minorities, students in rural areas, and girls are particularly underserved.
The memo does not give precise detail about how decisions about the funds will be made. Instead, the memo gives discretion to the Secretary of Education to allocate grant funds with the goal of promoting STEM subjects, especially Computer Science. However, there are indications that underserved populations will be favored in the decision-making process. In the Secretary’s annual report to the Office of Management and Budget, she will need to include the results from the previous year, including data specific to underserved populations. Additionally, Ivanka Trump, whose meetings with Silicon Valley executives over the past few months helped to precipitate this initiative, has stated that the White House will advise the agency to make decisions with gender and racial diversity in mind. The memo identified the scarcity of teachers for STEM subjects as a barrier to success, so it can be fairly assumed that steps toward alleviating this problem will be part of the process.
But one question circulating around the media is where will these funds come from and what other programs will be affected. White House officials have stated that the funds will be taken from the existing budget for the Department of Education—a budget that consisted of $209.1 billion in 2017. The President insists that $200 million dollars is “peanuts,” and next to $209.1 billion it may seem that way. However, if it is enough money to make a tangible difference in STEM education, it is likely enough money to diminish other programs.
Critics have suggested that shifting more resources toward STEM education and away from humanities, arts, and sports may help prepare students to work as inventors, but leave them unable to be innovators. For example, some have argued that the people skills learned from non-STEM subjects are needed to implement the skills acquired through a STEM education in any meaningful way.
However, psychology research may show that this view of people-skills acquisition is too narrow. People skills are the abilities that are necessary to maintain positive relationships and generally get along with others. They are acquired in many different social situations, such as arguing with a friend, reciprocating social cues, or handling a bully. Most would agree that social skills are vital to many aspects of life, including employment in a STEM field, and perhaps non-STEM classrooms may be a good places to learn social skills. But given that people skills are learned through a broad range of social interactions, it is also possible that children are learning these skills in STEM classes, or outside of school altogether.
Moreover, even if non-STEM classrooms were the exclusive domain of social-skills learning, the President’s memo does not advocate for less time spent teaching non-STEM subjects in public schools. Rather, the memo asserts that more and better course offerings in STEM subjects should be encouraged in order to keep the US economically competitive. The effect that additional STEM course offerings will have on non-STEM courses is at this point speculative.
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