I received a call this week from the NAACP leadership in Chesterville County, Va., regarding the disproportionately low numbers of minority students enrolled in advanced placement, honors, gifted and other forms of advanced high school coursework there. The man I spoke with has a daughter who entered college with STEM aspirations only to be discouraged by her freshman math and science coursework. While his daughter made it to college with the academic tools to enroll in a STEM major, many young Black, Hispanic and low-income youth in his community never realize their full potential because of course tracking that starts as early as elementary school and takes students away from ever taking an advanced math or science high school course.
The tracking phenomenon and lack of academic resources in predominantly minority schools and communities is not new, however, the consequences of low enrollment in advanced math and science classes by under-represented youth is more perilous when it comes to STEM education. If students aren’t on an appropriate math and science track by seventh grade, they will be unprepared for first-year math and science college coursework.
Access to postsecondary education is not enough. If we are to move the needle on STEM degree completion in this country, we must prepare minority youth — the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population — to enter and succeed in STEM college majors. This means increasing the rate by which Black, Hispanic and Native American students enroll in advanced math and science classes. A 2009 MPR Associates research brief on STEM course-taking shows that although more minority students are taking advanced STEM courses in high school, the White-Black and White-Hispanic gaps have not changed in 15 years.
In fact, according to the College Board report, Minority Student Success: The Role of Teachers in Advanced Placement Program (AP) Courses, only about one-third as many Black and Hispanic students are enrolled in the AP program relative to the Black and Hispanic U.S. population ages 15-19. Gaps persist among suburban, urban and rural high schools, as well. Rural students have the lowest rate of credits in almost all advanced STEM courses with the largest discrepancies occurring in precalculus, chemistry and physics.
Given these discouraging trends and the powerful observations made by teachers, parents, students and education advocates, it is easy to blame K-12 for failing to prepare STEM majors from all backgrounds and particularly from under-represented ones. Yet, for some reason, we often fail to hold higher education equally accountable. Since students with the best-prepared teachers excel on standardized assessments that often dictate the STEM track that students take, teacher education and professional development are more important than ever.
Still, schools and departments of education are often the most under-resourced disciplines on university campuses, represent the lowest paid faculty and are the first on the chopping block when it comes to per-pupil expenditure and other indicators of academic and administrative worth. Investment in schools of education is greatly needed, yet colleges and universities cannot stop there. They must also reach out to their adjacent K-12 communities with STEM-specific teacher development programs as well as STEM pipeline programs for underserved youth (especially in rural areas). Access to STEM majors by under-represented students will not improve until math and science secondary education is strengthened — a responsibility that rests with all members of the elementary, secondary and postsecondary education communities.
Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.