Is the Climate Changing for STEM Education?

And now?

Like much to do with this period of transition to a new presidential administration, the prospects for STEM education over the next four years are hard to get a fix on. The broad policy parameters for science and education can be supposed: space exploration and manufacturing, good; climate change, evolution, and public school funding, bad.

Any specific implementations, though, will become clear only through the unpredictable byplay of a new president with evolving policy interests and a Congress with evolving internal fault lines. Whether or not the mostly bipartisan support for STEM education persists in this new environment will be something to watch.

School choice waxing

An enduring education policy position on the right has been support for school choice, enacted through vouchers. Providing families with money they can put towards paying for a private or charter school alternative has long seemed like a way to create competition for public schools. As in a marketplace, competition is assumed to be a mechanism for incentivizing improvements and efficiencies in public education, supposedly hamstrung by a sclerotic bureaucracy and self-interested teachers unions. It could also result in a death spiral for public education.

Who’s checking?

A question for anyone contemplating school choice has always been how best to ensure that public school alternatives provide an education that serves both the students’ and country’s interests. The responsibility for ensuring this outcome, encompassed in the notion of accountability, has oscillated between federal and state or local levels in the last 30 years or so. With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the accountability pendulum has swung back towards state and local levels.

A dubious example to follow

Betsy DeVos, the new administration's choice for Secretary of Education, has pushed changes to education in Michigan, to less-than-stellar results.

Betsy DeVos, the new administration's choice for Secretary of Education, has pushed changes to education in Michigan, to less-than-stellar results.

As a country, we have now chosen to test a model of school choice and accountability that will likely move even further towards local control, if the nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has her way. As an active supporter of vouchers for private and charter schools and leeway for these schools to function as they see fit, DeVos and the foundation she has run with her husband Dick have played a big role in transforming Michigan education policy along these lines. The empirical data from analyzing these efforts have, to put it mildly, not been favorable.

How we decide

During the election, of course, the power of empirical data in shaping voters’ and policymakers’ views and actions was not prominently on display. Aristotle teaches us that persuasion results from a variable blend of appeals to emotion, reference to facts, and the trustworthiness of the person speaking. So, to be sure, data and facts cannot stand alone as a basis for action.

Even so, people vested with authority and power in the public sphere would, one hopes, give preferential deference to facts. In the case of Betsy DeVos, the initial indications are mixed, at best.

Great-ness abounds

At a December rally in Michigan, DeVos pledged herself to the effort to “make education great again.” Her “MEGA” speech did not identify the time when American education actually was great, so it is hard to know exactly what the indicators of greatness might be.

We can observe that, as of now, test scores in reading and math have been steadily, if slowly, rising over the last 40 years, the achievement gap between white and minority students has been narrowing, and high school dropout rates are at an all-time low. What data we might adduce to identify prior periods of better “greatness” in American education were not forthcoming.

A full takedown of DeVos’s MEGA speech appears in The74, a website named after the 74 million school-age children in the United States. One of the biggest financial supporters of The 74? Betsy DeVos.

Whither Common Core?

Despite some early confusion, DeVos has made clear her opposition to Common Core reading and math standards. In her MEGA speech, DeVos argued for “letting states set their own standards and finally putting an end to the federal Common Core.” Of course, states have always had the final say over their own standards and how the bulk of money gets spent on education. The federal government puts in about eight cents for every dollar spent on K-12 education.

Towards state control

Indeed, ESSA is constructed to reduce the federal role in K-12 education. Under this successor law to the much more federally-focused No Child Left Behind Act, states have greater leeway to devise their own accountability regimes and allocate the federal dollars they do get for teacher quality and instructional programming. DeVos should be happy to preside over implementation of such a law.

Constraint on federal actions

Less agreeable to her, though, would be ESSA language that prohibits the Secretary of Education from intervening in states’ determination of their learning standards. Intended as a curb on prospective Secretaries of Education inclined favorably towards Common Core standards, the provision also preempts anti-Common Core officials from acting to do away with the standards, either directly or indirectly.

Connoisseurs of irony, you may pause and relish.

Unclear outlook for STEM education

STEM education, as noted, has enjoyed unusual bipartisan support, even as factions have polarized on so many other policy fronts. As a campaign issue, it had almost no visibility, so anticipating specifically what might happen is tricky. NSTA, the STEM Education Coalition, and others are trying.

Broadly speaking, the new president has expressed interest in space exploration, manufacturing, and resource extraction. If policy efforts in these areas come to include correlated education fields, we might see programs in physics, engineering, mathematics, astronomy, geology, computer science, and career and technical education.

NASA's Earth Science Directorate has significant responsibility for information-gathering satellites in orbit around the earth, a vital source of data for scientists all over the world studying all kinds of terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena.

NASA's Earth Science Directorate has significant responsibility for information-gathering satellites in orbit around the earth, a vital source of data for scientists all over the world studying all kinds of terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena.

Hostility towards environmental regulations and climate change remediation, as well as a running-mate who professes belief in creationism, suggests that biology, ecology, and natural sciences in general would suffer. Indeed, promises to end NASA’s earth science programs have spooked the international science community. And climate scientists have recently taken to making private copies of research data in the field to protect the knowledge base of the field against potential political threats.

Few STEM clues

DeVos’s record in STEM education is sketchy and hard to parse. The DeVos Foundation has provided major funding for the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a well regarded, STEM-oriented high school in Grand Rapids. The foundation also recently announced a fund-raising campaign to benefit western Michigan Boy Scouts STEM education activities.

On the other hand, when he was running for governor of Michigan in 2006, Dick DeVos expressed support for including intelligent design in Michigan’s science curriculum. For her part, Betsy has no public record on this issue.

At a minimum, something different

In sum, we can’t say anything with certainty about STEM education under a new administration. The climate will certainly change from that of the Obama White House, which featured the “nerd-in-chief” presiding over science fairs and maker events, launching programs like Educate to Innovate and Computer Science for All, and helping make the environment hospitable for the great success of something like 100Kin10. What specific phenomena will issue from this change in the climate? Hard to say, but as with climate change writ large in the earth’s atmosphere, the change to come in Washington could well be disruptive.


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 @StartEnginNow.

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