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Broadening STEM Opportunities: Why So Slow? 

By Margaret A. Eisenhart and Lois Weis

On December 7, 2022, President Biden announced a new initiative “to provide all students with the opportunities they need to access and excel in science, technology, engineering, math, and medical (STEMM) fields” (EdWeek, 2022). This initiative joins similar ones previously proposed by both Democratic and Republican administrations at the beginning of their terms. Yet, little seems to change. There continues to be too few qualified and interested young people to fill the demand for STEM workers. There continues to be large groups of young people—of color, from lower-income backgrounds, and girls and women—who are underrepresented in critical areas of both STEM education and STEM work. Trend data indicate that the number of women in STEM jobs would need to double, the number of Black people would need to double, and the number of Hispanic people would need triple to reflect US societal demographics by 2030 (NSF as reported in EdWeek, 2022). Why do these patterns persist despite the many and varied attempts to change them? 
One answer is that the actual workings of high schools serving large numbers of underrepresented students are not well-understood or appreciated by policy makers. Thus, these conditions and their influences are rarely addressed directly by the STEM initiatives that policy makers propose. There are deep-seated features of schooling for non-privileged students in this country that make desired changes unlikely if not impossible. 
The Biden administration’s new initiative is a case in point.  The initiative’s purpose is to unite “governments, nonprofits, professional organizations, industries, philanthropies, and other community stakeholders…[in] breaking down long-standing barriers [to] student success in the STEM fields” ( It prioritizes three goals: to ensure that all students excel in “rigorous, relevant, and joyful STEM learning”; to develop and support STEM educators; and to invest strategically in STEM education. The purpose and the goals are necessarily broad, but it is striking that the direction is to unite those who, for the most part, work outside the actual provision of educational services. There is no mention of involving the teachers, principals, or counselors who spend all day with the most affected students in the planning of the reforms; there is no mention of school district administrators or staff who establish and enforce the day-to-day schedules, routines, and requirements of school life for these students. The Biden initiative aims to help, not learn from, these participants, and the helpers are, for the most part, far removed from the everyday opportunities and struggles of adults and students where most of the teaching, counseling, advising, supporting, encouraging, and motivating (or discouraging) of students underrepresented in STEM actually happens, i.e., in schools. 
Our new book, STEM Education Reform in Urban High Schools, examines what actually happened to high-achieving, underrepresented students in urban high schools where STEM reform efforts were initiated in 2010. We carefully examined the school programs and the math and science experiences of 96 non-privileged students at the 8 schools, beginning in 2010 when the students were high school sophomores. All the schools were engaged in STEM education reform prompted by President Obama’s similar STEM education initiative of 2009. All 96 “focal” students were high-achieving in math or science relative to other students in their school when they entered high school, and all expressed interest in pursuing some form of math or science after high school. During three years of high school for these students (2010-2013), the researchers examined: the math and science courses that were offered at each school; the students’ patterns of enrollment, experiences and grades in these courses; college guidance counseling at each school; students’ interpretations of their math or science experiences, their college decision-making, and their developing understandings of what they were good at and what they wanted to pursue in college and beyond. Beginning in 2013 after the students graduated from high school and continuing until 2020, the researchers kept track of the students’ college coursework, work experiences, choice of major, college graduation status, and future plans. The researchers accumulated a 9-year record of the students’ experiences and outcomes related to opportunities for math or science in high school and beyond. 
The results make clear that while many of these “underrepresented” students were very interested in pursuing STEM, and while reform efforts led to new and advanced STEM courses being added in all the study schools, systemic issues impeded many students’ efforts to take advantage of them. The problems were more serious in some schools than others, but all the schools were affected in some way.  For example, when new and more advanced courses were offered, few students signed up for them.  Why? Because students first had to meet specific grade requirements, achieve standardized test score benchmarks, or take required (rather than elective) courses to graduate from high school. They had to worry about keeping their grades high to be eligible for competitive colleges, scholarships, and financial aid. Many high-achieving students made choices not to pursue STEM for these reasons and did so without adult guidance because their parents lacked relevant knowledge and the schools’ guidance counselors were overwhelmed trying to help low-performing students prepare to graduate from high school. For these reasons, advanced STEM courses and electives in some of the schools were quickly cancelled for lack of students. Unfortunately for students who very much wanted to pursue STEM, extra help or tutoring in math or science was generally not available from the school and had to be found outside their courses—usually on an ad hoc basis from teachers willing to stay after school to help. For students who wished to know more about STEM fields and careers, school counselors were not prepared to provide specific information about college programs or career pathways in STEM. In many of the schools, even high-achieving students learned to interpret the meaning of “being good” in math or science in narrow and procedural ways, as in making good grades, passing tests, and uncritically following teachers’ directions. Such beliefs undermined interest, curiosity, and excitement in STEM. 
More hopefully, some of the non-privileged students in the study succeeded in upper-level math and science courses and went on to pursue higher education, graduate, and take jobs in STEM areas. To achieve this success, these students had to attend high schools with “complete programs” in math and science, i.e., the full complement of high school math and science courses to progress from lower to high levels of proficiency, culminating in Calculus and/or Physics. If higher-level courses were not available at their school, they found courses (online or at nearby schools) to take.  If these students needed tutoring to reach higher-level STEM courses, they looked beyond the school or the school day.  If they needed advice and counseling about STEM in college or careers, they again had to look beyond the school. For students who went to college and achieved a 2- or 4-year degree in a STEM field, the researchers found that 63% took STEM-related jobs or pursued STEM careers after college. 
Of course, many young people will benefit from the STEM programs developed and provided by the outside-school organizations and groups promoted and sponsored by the Biden administration’s new initiative, but it’s worth carefully considering what is actually happening when schools try to promote STEM and what needs to be done in or by schools and school districts to make the effort more successful and worthwhile. 

About the Authors

Margaret A. Eisenhart is University Distinguished Professor Emerita of Educational Foundations and Research Methodology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Lois Weis is State University of New York Distinguished Professor of Sociology of Education at the University at Buffalo. They are the authors of STEM Education Reform in Urban High Schools

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