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STEM overload

May 22, 2013
You may be for or against the sequester — the mandatory budget cuts that hit many federal agencies. But all the hand-wringing over its consequences is bringing to light some of the interesting ways our tax dollars are being spent.

Take STEM programs. No one I know opposes science, technology, engineering, and math education. Proponents, including the President, say STEM education should be a national priority as it helps prepare students for technical careers which drive innovation, enhance global competitiveness, and help foster economic prosperity.

But as with booze and donuts, you can have too much of a good thing. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in 2010 the Federal government supported 209 STEM programs costing $3.1 billion a year. They are spread across 13 agencies, including 46 programs at Health and Human Services, 37 at the National Science Foundation, and 29 at the Dept. of Energy. Even the Dept. of the Interior, steward of our national parks, has three.

Where does the money go? A fair portion supports research opportunities, internships, and teacher training — seemingly money well spent. And many programs serve underrepresented groups, a laudable goal considering the acute lack of women and minorities in engineering.

However, a recent GAO report lambasted many aspects of STEM spending, in particular the duplication of effort. Of the 209 programs, 99% targeted the same audience and provided a similar service as at least one other program. And 83% overlapped in terms of operations, target group, STEM field, and goals. Most didn’t coordinate or share results with other agencies that provide similar STEM-education services.

And no one seems to know if these programs are working. Most agencies don’t measure the effectiveness and performance of their activities. Many can’t even provide reliable information on the number of students, teachers, or institutions directly served by their programs. And of those that did evaluations, many used questionable survey methods, had poor response rates, or did not evaluate results against any baseline criteria.

The report was also highly critical of efforts at the K-12 level. Here, STEM education across agencies lacked “a coherent vision or careful oversight of goals and outcomes.” Little funding was targeted at efforts to bolster STEM education, and few were concerned with duplicative efforts or even disseminating information on successful programs.

Goals, in some cases, are so loosely written that they could fund almost anything, and they do. Under the auspices of one DOT program, some high schools in New Jersey picked up a $100,000 grant to let several teachers get flight training in small airplanes, ostensibly to “build confidence and develop leadership traits” that will improve STEM education in the classroom.

The billions in spending doesn’t appear to be translating into an abundance of STEM-literate citizens. ACT scores indicate less than half of high-school graduates are ready for college-level math. And U. S. students continue to lag behind their counterparts in other developed nations on standard math and science achievement tests.

The current fragmentation and haphazard approach make it nearly impossible to determine which programs are cost effective. The GAO calls for more-uniform methods to evaluate what is working and how improvements can be made, as well as better dissemination of info within and across agencies. Based on this, it says, government-wide decisions could be made about which programs to fund and which to eliminate. Good luck with that.

-- Kenneth J. Korane, Managing Editor

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