The Early Origins Of The STEM Achievement Gap (And What Can Be Done To Help)

Every year, like a drumbeat, more articles, studies and reports detail the reasons that a disproportionally low number of people of color are employed in the well paid science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. One result has been a myriad of programs designing to attract, prepare, mentor, and retain secondary and college-age underrepresented students into the STEM fields. An interesting new study, however, suggests that solutions to this problem need to begin much earlier, prior to kindergarten in fact.

First, it should be noted race or ethnicity, per se, are not really what’s at issue in terms of students’ relative success in the STEM fields, but rather the historic and persistent lack of opportunity afforded to certain segments of U.S. society, resulting in the overrepresentation of people of color among the ranks of the poor.  And further, it is not poverty in itself, but poverty's accompanying life conditions that help to explain performance gaps that begin at home and extend into schooling and beyond.

In this case, the study’s authors, Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier and  Maczuga, argue that “the strongest contributors to science achievement gaps in the United States are general knowledge gaps that are already present at kindergarten entry. Therefore, interventions designed to address science achievement gaps in the United States may need to be implemented very early in children’s development (e.g., by or around school entry, if not earlier) so as to counteract the early onset of general knowledge gaps during the preschool and early elementary years.”

Measuring The Success Of Informal STEM Programs For Girls

Despite substantial improvement over the past half decade, the gender pay gap still persists in the U.S. When the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, women made 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. Fifty years later, in 2014, women earned 81 cents on the male dollar. One area on which educators and policymakers have focused to rectify the gender pay differential is encouraging young girls to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women account for half of the workforce in the U.S., but they are employed in less than 25 percent of STEM positions. Women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM occupations, but women hold far fewer STEM undergraduate degrees than men, especially in engineering. And, perplexingly, even women with a STEM degree seem less inclined to work in STEM jobs; they are more likely than STEM-educated men to choose education or healthcare. The main explanations for these discrepancies include lack of female role models, discrimination against females at school and in the work place, and gender stereotypes (Hill et al. 2010).

Informal STEM programs offer one potential means of improving female participation in these fields, with the “informal” meaning that the learning occurs in an out-of-school environment (Krishnamurthi and Rennie 2013). A program called Girls Inc. Operation SMART, for example, runs an initiative called Eureka!, which seeks to provide eighth grade girls with internship opportunities in math, science, and technology. The organization Techbridge offers Girls Go Techbridge, which holds learning activities, and a role model training program, which connects girls with volunteers who are passionate about motivating them to get involved in science, technology and engineering. Other initiatives include the National Science Partnership for Girl Scouts and Science Museums (NSP), Women in Natural Sciences (WINS), and Rural Girls in Science.

Where Al Shanker Stood: Quick Fixes In Education

In this "Where We Stand" column, which was printed in the New York Times on March 27, 1983, Al Shanker quotes historian Paul Gagnon to argue that we need to think long-term about the purposes of public schooling and agree on a carefully chosen set of education reform priorities. Failing this, they warn, the U.S. will forever be caught in a churn of futile, quick-fix reform initiatives.

It never fails. Whenever there's an educational problem, there's always an attempt to solve it with a quick fix. The current problem - the shortage of science and math teachers - is no exception. A quick fix just won't work. Of course, there are a few things that can be done to ease the problem. The most promising short-run idea is to encourage teachers already teaching in other fields but who have a good background in math and science to switch.

But we won't solve the problem until we know why we have one. It is not just that private industry pays more. It's that there aren't enough students graduating from college in these fields to satisfy the needs of business and the teaching profession. Most students stay away from math and science in college because they didn't get enough of a background in high school. Why? Because math and science course are more difficult than many electives, and most high school students, given a choice between tough courses and easy ones, choose the latter. And it doesn't start there. It goes back to elementary school, and not just with respect to math and science but with the ability to read problems and think them through ... willingness to discipline oneself, to work long and hard.

The Educational Attainment Of Girls And Boys: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Last month, Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, was shot in the head, in an attempted assassination by Taliban militants. Her “crime” was daring to advocate for girls’ education. In a New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof observes that we in the West find it “easy to dismiss such incidents as distant barbarities," and uses the example of sex trafficking to illustrate that we “have a blind spot for our own injustices." I agree. However, I am not sure we need to go so far to find domestic injustices.

How about a close look within this very area: The education of girls (and boys) in the U.S.? Stories about how girls have surpassed boys in educational attainment have become common, and are often linked to statements about how boys are forgotten and/or lost. This rhetoric is troubling for several reasons. First, it can be read to imply a zero-sum equation; that is, that the educational advancement of girls is the cause of boys’ educational neglect. Second, stories about girls’ “successes” and boys’ “failures” may obscure more than they reveal.

There are the "lost boys" of higher education and the "missing girls" of STEM. We worry about boys and reading and girls and math. Recurring questions include where are the women in technology? Or, are there enough novels that cater to boys? Women have sailed past men in obtaining college degrees but, importantly, continue to concentrate in different fields and need Ph.D.s to match men with bachelor’s in the workplace.

When issues are addressed in this fragmented manner, it’s hard to tell if it’s girls or boys that we should be worrying about. Well, both and neither. What all these pieces of the puzzle really say is that – at least in this day, age, and nation – gender still matters.

What Do We Do When Second Graders Think Math Is Not For Girls?

Although the past several generations have seen declining gender inequalities in educational attainment, gender-based differences in the fields of study we choose seem to persist (see here). For example, the percentage of women obtaining degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields has remained exceedingly static in the last few decades (see here).

In trying to explain this persistent trend, some conclude that (1) women are not as interested in these fields, and/or that (2) women just aren’t as good as men in these domains. But how would one tell whether these explanations are right or wrong?

One problem is that people share specific, culturally based ideas about what men and women are and should be. Numerous studies demonstrate that the dearth of women in STEM fields can be directly linked to negative associations regarding girls and the sciences, and especially girls and math ability (see here and here).