STEM Ed Change Starts to Get Real

ESSA signing ceremony, December 10, 2015.

ESSA signing ceremony, December 10, 2015.

The end of the beginning

STEM advocates generally found reasons to celebrate the passage last month of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a long-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Rich in references to STEM education, the law sets the stage for thousands of schools and districts to receive federal support for a range of STEM education activities.

It would be a mistake, though, to regard the passage of the law as the endpoint of a journey to change in education policies and practices. Rather, how a law governs people’s behavior depends on what happens after Congress finishes its work – lawmaking – and the executive branch begins its work: rulemaking.

The way forward

Rulemaking will determine specifically how all the STEM education policies set forth in the law might translate into federally funded program activities designed to support K-12 teaching and learning activities.

The spectacle

The lawmaking work of Congress is visible and often dramatic. It involves arguments about values and philosophies, plays out in the public eye, and resolves itself in moments that can attain high drama: roll-call votes in the historic United States Capitol building.

The slog

Rulemaking translates legislative language into words that govern behaviors.

Rulemaking translates legislative language into words that govern behaviors.

Rulemaking, on the other hand, is drudgery. Except to interest groups, it is nearly invisible. Rulemaking is meant to translate general, often ambiguous legislative language into specific do’s and don’ts for people affected by the original law.

It starts when departments and agencies of the executive branch invite comments from the public on crafting rules that will ultimately reside in the Code of Federal Regulations. Comments can run to hundreds of pages. Dozens of executive branch staffers spend countless hours poring over these comments. They work to glean key issues and possible approaches for incorporation into draft and then final rules that define how the change put forth in the law will govern behaviors.

Work on ESSA

Just before Christmas, the Department of Education began this process of institutionalizing the changes laid out in ESSA. A press release announced the publication in the Federal Register of a Request for Information from the public on ways to implement Title I regulations, to do with federal assistance for low-income schools.

If the department continues going title-by-title through the rulemaking process, the key junctures for STEM education will come with Title II and Title IV, teacher quality programs and 21st-century schools programs, respectively. The law gathers STEM instruction provisions in these sections, describing things like a STEM master-teacher corps, professional development programs, differential pay for high-achieving STEM teachers, and much more.



The familiar

Most of the policy ideas included in the law have circulated among lawmakers and STEM advocates for some years. We have reviewed them in detail as they have come up in both this Congress and the last. The way forward for making rules will build upon ample existing analyses and infrastructure within K-12 education on which to base programmatic activities.

The new

Some STEM policy provisions, though, seem to be commanding more interest than others, and interest from high places. An admittedly obvious rule of politics is to pay attention to what people say, and even more, to what they do. Corollary to this rule is to notice what people don’t say.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama made little mention of the STEM policies already baked into the policy cake. Instead, he spent his time and put his actions towards the newer, more difficult elements of the STEM formula laid out in ESSA. These parts involve computer science and engineering.

Coding’s star turn

President Obama called for computer science to become a bigger part of K-12 education in his State of the Union address.

President Obama called for computer science to become a bigger part of K-12 education in his State of the Union address.

In a speech lacking the usual laundry list of proposals, President Obama called out computer science with notable specificity. He called for programs for “helping students learn to write computer code.” He went on later to urge building on progress in education by “offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on Day 1.”

And in case people missed the point, in the gallery seated next to Michelle Obama was Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (clearly rehabilitated now after his infamous, 2014 counsel to women in tech not to get too pushy … ).

A really tough nut

ESSA builds on recent law making computer science part of the standard STEM roster, as it is construed for defining eligibility for federal funding. However, getting substantive computer science teaching into the K-12 day poses, shall we say, some challenges.

To start with, the teaching cohort does not exist. Teachers with computer science content knowledge have ready, higher-paying career options, so they often leave the field. Training and certification opportunities in the field are rare.

The Computer Science Teachers Association estimates about ten percent of high schools currently offer computer science, to say nothing about certainly lower rates in middle and elementary schools. Instructional materials are few, far between, and of dubious quality. With the K-12 curriculum already notoriously packed, squeezing in a whole new set of computer science courses means squeezing out, well, exactly what?

Engineering steps up

President Obama spent less time on engineering in the speech. A piece of the “general progress” in education he cited consisted in having “boosted graduates in fields like engineering.”

If this reference seems inconsequential, be assured it is not. The State of the Union is, word-for-word, probably the most hotly contested utterance in the sphere of American public discourse. Every word marks a triumph of rhetorical, policy, and political value in pitched competition among all the arguments the president can use to make his case.

The figure below suggests something about the level of preparation that goes into the speech. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released it on its Twitter feed at 7:41 PM, an hour-plus before the start of the speech, providing statistical backup to a six-word grace note in a speech of nearly 6,200 words.

This graph was tweeted by the Office of Science and Technology Policy less than two hours before President Obama made reference to having "boosted" engineering graduation rates.

This graph was tweeted by the Office of Science and Technology Policy less than two hours before President Obama made reference to having "boosted" engineering graduation rates.

It’s all relative

Compared to getting computer science into K-12, the engineering piece starts to seem tractable. While still underdeveloped, the “E” in STEM has at least always been present. Some schools do offer training in engineering to prospective teachers, many off-the-shelf programs exist, and an affinity in content and thinking with some science and technology subjects makes it easier for teachers to cross over into the field.

ESSA will now allow states to receive funding for incorporating engineering design principles into science assessment regimes. It also supports teacher professional development and high-quality instruction in engineering.

Even so

But, as we have noted, many of the challenges facing K-12 computer science also bedevil K-12 engineering. To get a read on how the STEM community is going to work through the task of institutionalizing change in these areas, stay tuned to the Department of Education rulemaking proceedings for Titles II and IV.

Get involved

Even better, submit your own comments. What would you put into comments on ESSA rulemaking, when it comes to computer science or engineering? How do you think ESSA should be implemented?

Please leave a comment, send us a note, and of course, share with any interested colleagues.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

Our new Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

And, for outreach or education programs, don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering books, What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide.