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Washington Spotlight January 2012

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SWE to Hold Capitol Hill Day March 21-22, 2012

The SWE Government Relations and Public Policy (GRPP) Committee will once again be organizing a spring Congressional outreach day on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. This event, which will be held March 21-22, 2012, will increase awareness of the need for and the importance of increased diversity and inclusion in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce. 

Like last year, SWE will be taking the lead in organizing this event, and is in the process of reaching out to other STEM organizations to solicit their interest in participating. SWE’s “2012 Capitol Hill Day: Diversity and Inclusion Drives Innovation in STEM” event will begin promptly at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, March 21, 2012, and conclude by 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 22, 2012. This event is being made possible by a grant from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

While there are no specific volunteer travel funds available for this event, some meals will be provided for attendees. 

Please note: Space is limited and reservations will be handled on a first-come, first-served basis. Geographic diversity will also be considered.

If you are interesting in participating or have any questions, please contact Karen Horton, GRPP Chair, at grpp-chair@swe.org.

Department of Education Math and Science Partnership Program Saved from Elimination in FY 2012

In the FY 2012 omnibus funding bill, the Department of Education Math and Science Partnership (MSP) program received $150 million, down from $175 million in FY 2011. This was a rosier scenario than originally envisioned, since the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee had targeted it for elimination.

SWE has been a longtime supporter of the MSP program, and recently signed onto a STEM Education Coalition letter to House and Senate leadership encouraging them to continue their support for effective and focused STEM education programs, including MSP, at the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

A copy of the letter is available online for review.

Other big winners in the omnibus bill that were targeted for elimination or reduction by the House were President Obama’s three signature programs: the Race to the Top initiative ($550 million), the Investing in Innovation grant program ($150 million) and the School Improvement Grants ($536.4 million). 

Seven States Win New Race to the Top Competition

On December 23, the Department of Education announced that seven states—Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania—will receive a portion of the $200 million in the Race to the Top Round 3 (RTT3) fund, which “focuses on supporting efforts to leverage comprehensive statewide reform, while also improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.” Their grants range in size, based on each state's student population, from $17 million for Colorado, Kentucky and Louisiana to nearly $43 million for Illinois. All of these states were runners-up in the last Race to the Top competition.

Even with this stated emphasis on STEM, some education experts are questioning how much RTT3 will benefit STEM education, since the winning states will primarily use this money to implement part of their original Race to the Top plans and do not have to spend it explicitly on STEM programming. These plans focused on making progress in one of the core areas of the economic-stimulus legislation, i.e. turning around low-performing schools, raising standards or improving evaluation systems.

The Department of Education recently released a summary document that includes a few more details of what states plan to spend their funding on. Arizona is one of multiple states that plans to focus on STEM as they transition to the Common Core State Standards. Louisiana, on the other hand, plans to embed STEM throughout its reform work. Kentucky and Colorado will build on existing STEM efforts, while Illinois will build a "public-private infrastructure to support STEM integration across the curriculum.”

This announcement came on the heels of some bad news for the Race to the Top (RTT) program. On December 21, federal officials cited Hawaii for "unsatisfactory performance" on its Race to the Top grant, and placed the state on "high-risk" status. Because of this status, the state will now “have to ask the department for permission before spending any more of its $75 million or will face an extensive on-site review and increased reporting requirements.” The Department also indicated if Hawaii did not comply, it could be in danger of losing its grant altogether.

Counterbalancing this bad news; however, was the fact that Congress included an additional $550 million for Race to the Top in its recently-passed omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2012. The omnibus bill also provided language that would allow the Department to create a district-level competition and continue the investment in the Early Learning Challenge.

White House Releases STEM Ed Inventory

On December 15, the White House National Science and Technology Council released a new inventory of the federal government’s spending on STEM education. In total, the report says the federal government spends $3.4 billion on STEM education programs, which are spread across 13 federal agencies. While other analyses have argued that there is much redundancy and overlap between federal STEM education programs, the report determines this issue may have been overstated. 

Some highlights of the report include:

  • “Of the $3.4 billion total, nearly $1 billion is spent on activities that target the specific workforce needs of particular agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Transportation;
  • The remainder of the money is spent on broader STEM education matters, dominated by funding from the NSF and the Education Department;
  • About $1.1 billion has as its primary goal targeting populations underrepresented in the STEM fields (such as African Americans, Hispanics and females);
  • 24 investments totaling $312 million have the primary goal of improving teacher effectiveness;
  • 80 percent of all the federal spending comes from three agencies: the NSF ($1.2 billion), the Department of Education ($1 billion) and the Department of Health and Human Services ($577 million); and
  • About 60 percent of all the federal spending targets K-12 education, with the rest directed at the postsecondary level.”

The aforementioned report was required by the America COMPETES Act. In addition, per the America COMPETES Act, the White House must develop a five-year strategic plan for advancing STEM education, which is expected out early next year.

House Republications Likely to Write Their Own NCLB Bill

On December 16, House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said that the Committee has been working for months on a bipartisan re-write of the “No Child Left Behind Law,” but the two parties are not able to reach agreement. Therefore, Republican lawmakers are likely to write their own bill since the two sides are too far apart on sticky issues like accountability.

In his statement, Chairman Kline said, “Since the start of the 112th Congress, education reform has been a top priority for the committee and my Republican colleagues. We convened 11 hearings and invited dozens of witnesses to describe the challenges and opportunities facing the nation's schools. My colleagues and I also spent months engaged in bipartisan talks on the way forward for reform of the elementary and secondary education act. There were several areas where we forged new agreement, but others in which we ultimately could not come to a consensus. The urgency to reform the law has not changed. I look forward to a robust debate once legislation is introduced in the coming weeks.”

A partisan ESEA bill in the House is a big development, since it might dampen the likelihood that the reauthorization would be completed before the end of President Barack Obama's first term. While ESEA is not always passed by large bipartisan majorities as NCLB did in 2001, it is typically crafted in a bipartisan fashion.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) has said he won't seek to advance the Senate Committee-passed bill to the Senate floor until the House approves a bipartisan product.

SWE has been supportive of Senate Merkley’s “Preparing Our Students for the Success in the Global Economy Act,” which was integrated as the STEM-related title of the Senate ESEA bill. SWE recently signed onto a STEM Coalition letter expressing support for the bill.

Therefore, if Congress does not take action, the administration's waivers will become “the main vehicle for fixing the controversial law.” 

New Report Warns That U.S. Student Science Achievement Threatened by Alarming State Variations in Measuring Learning

“All Over the Map,” a recent report released by Change the Equation (CTEq)—a network of more than 100 CEOs dedicated to creating widespread literacy in STEM—at the National Governor Association’s STEM Summit in Durham, N.C., finds that U.S. students risk falling behind in science education due to radically inconsistent state definitions of proficiency. While teachers and parents are being told that students are meeting the standard for eighth-grade proficiency set by their state, they may actually be performing at levels substantially below their international counterparts and go on to struggle in high school, college and their careers.

For the first time, researchers put state definitions of “proficiency” in eighth-grade science against a common measuring stick – the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade science test. NAEP is a project of the U.S. Department of Education that measures student knowledge and achievement nationally. NAEP defines “basic” as “…partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade,” which is insufficient for the learning that students need to put them on a path to success in college-level science.

The results are startling. For example, what one state may deem to be “proficient” may be classified as “basic” or well below grade level in another state:

  • Fifteen states have set the bar for “proficiency” below NAEP’s threshold for “basic” knowledge
  • Only four states have set the bar near or above NAEP’s bar for proficiency. Louisiana, New Mexico and Mississippi have more rigorous performance standards for students than states like Connecticut, New York and Maryland that are generally thought to have high-quality, competitive schools
  • Virginia has the lowest definition of “proficient,” followed by Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina, Iowa, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Oregon, South Carolina, California and Arizona. All have set their definitions for achievement below NAEP’s standard for “basic” science learning. Just four states (Louisiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire) are at or above NAEP’s standard for proficiency

One of CTEq’s member organizations, Intel, also recently conducted a survey to identify how to encourage more young people to choose engineering as a career. The survey offers several ideas:

  • Talk about how rewarding it is to be an engineer
  • Describe it as a positive challenge, rather than as merely difficult
  • Give it a human face
  • Stress its benefits to society

Additional suggestions on how to promote engineering careers among young students are available at the National Academy of Engineering website

AZ School District to Offer STEM Diplomas

Starting next school year, the Chandler Unified School District in Arizona recently announced plans to offer two specialized STEM diplomas at one of its high schools, Perry High School in Gilbert. The two diplomas are called the “STEM Diploma” program and the more rigorous STEM “Scholar Diploma” program, and will emphasize project-based learning and provide students with what the district calls "real-world" experiences.

If enrolled in either diploma programs, students would take more rigorous, STEM coursework than is generally required to graduate, including five credits of math, (including AP Statistics) and six credits of science (or a combination of science and engineering coursework). If enrolled in the STEM Scholar diploma, students would be required to take AP Chemistry, Physics and Calculus, as well as a course on differential equations. Available electives also include human biology, biotechnology, and computer science. In addition, students must take a full load of non-STEM courses, including AP English and American History.

The district is also working with local universities, i.e. Arizona State University Polytechnic, to provide opportunities for students to take college courses. Additional requirements for the students include attendance at STEM workshops, as well as the completion of a job-shadow experience before their senior year.

These STEM diplomas were modeled after similar programs at Benton High School in Louisiana and CREST, a small specialty school in Paradise Valley, AZ.

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