Report: Federal STEM education programs need better assessment

A process of eliminating overlap among federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education programs streamlined initiatives from 206 in FY 2010 to 163 in FY 2016, but the oversight of programs appears lacking today, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education: Actions Needed to Better Assess the Federal Investment, indicates that federal investment in STEM education has remained “relatively stable” from FY 2010 to 2016, but “nearly all” of the existing programs continue to show some overlapping priorities.

This means they offered “at least one similar service to at least one similar group in at least one similar STEM field to achieve at least one similar objective,” the report said.

It’s déjà vu for GAO investigators, who, in 2012, reported finding a “high degree of overlap” among 200 federal STEM programs across 13 different agencies.

They made several recommendations to improve their coordination and management, including program consolidations, creations, and terminations at the U.S. Education DepartmentU.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Energy Department, among others.

In FY 2016, overlap among programs supporting students and teachers was as follows:

  • 143 programs provided research opportunities, internships, mentorships, or career guidance.
  • 110 programs supported short-term experiential learning activities, such as field trips, guest speakers, workshops, and summer camps.
  • 99 programs supported long-term experiential learning activities that last throughout a semester in length or longer.
  • 77 programs provided curriculum development.
  • 45 programs supported teacher in-service training, professional development, or retention activities.

Program evaluation

To gather information on how the federal investment in STEM education changed from FY 2010 to 2016, GAO investigators administered a web-based questionnaire to initiatives funded in FY 2016.

They found that the Committee on STEM Education, an interagency body responsible for implementing the federal STEM education strategic plan under the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, Pub. L. No. 114-329, “has not fully met its responsibilities to assess the federal STEM education portfolio,” including monitoring efforts of participating agencies to ensure a five-year STEM education strategic plan is developed and executed effectively.

Specifically, the committee has not reviewed programs’ performance assessments, nor has it documented those assessments in its inventory, as required by law, the report said.

“Such efforts could encourage the use of evidenced-based practices across the portfolio — a key national goal of the STEM education strategic plan,” the report said. “These efforts could also enhance public awareness of the administering agencies’ efforts to assess programs’ performance.”

They also neglected to report participation rates of underrepresented groups in federal STEM education programs — a metric that will help shed light on whether federal efforts are broadening access to historically underrepresented groups in STEM fields, investigators explained.

GAO recommendations

The GAO made four recommendations to the Committee on STEM Education and to the Trump administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy:

  1. Review performance assessments of federal STEM education programs and then take appropriate steps to enhance effectiveness of the portfolio, such as by sharing promising practices that agencies could use in designing or revising their programs.
  2. Improve public awareness of information on programs’ performance assessments by documenting program-level information on performance assessments in its federal STEM education inventory.
  3. Report required information on the participation rates of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons from rural areas in federal STEM education programs that collect this information.
  4. Report the outcomes of programs’ performance assessments completed in the previous year in an annual report.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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