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An Initial Response to the National Academies Press Report

On Sept. 30, the National Academies Press released a much anticipated pre-publication copy of Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. The forthcoming report—with its detailed synthesis and recommended approaches—is the result of a 2006 request by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and other policymakers who championed diversifying the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipeline to meet 21st century labor demands and dramatic shifts in the country’s demographics.

The publication draws on a multitude of disquieting statistics that depict continued inequity between America’s underrepresented minority population and those who obtain advanced STEM degrees. Its authors walk readers through the proverbial STEM pipeline and its many hazards that lead to racial/ethnic achievement gaps. They also touch on evidenced practices and the role and responsibility of institutions in retaining students in scientific fields and attracting and promoting minority faculty.

We know this landscape well. Decades of empirical research articulate the barriers and interventions that respectively impede and advance underserved populations in STEM.

The field needs better K-12 math and science teachers, engaged college professors, diverse pedagogies, and support for students in transition. We need sustained pathways to the STEM doctorate for minority men and women, equity within the professoriate, the redistribution of institutional resources, and leadership and commitment at both two- and four-year institutions.

These are prescriptions to a problem that has plagued higher education for more than 40 years. They are informed by data, empirical analyses, programmatic evidence, and theoretical positioning.

The National Academies report—incredibly comprehensive for its descriptive statistics, literature synthesis, snapshot of federal and other investments, and personal accounts—bases its recommendations on a nearly complete set of foundational evidence (glaringly absent is a conversation on men and women of color as distinct populations, something I’ll address in a later post).

Yet, not unlike its predecessors, including A Nation at Risk and Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the report devotes relatively little of its 217 pages to actionable policy recommendations. In fact, chapter eight entitled, “Recommendations and Implementation Actions,” is just 13 pages in length. To be fair, recommendations are strewn throughout the report in various formats, yet the translation of research into practical policy action is limited.

This is not so much a criticism as it is a call to action. I don’t believe the esteemed committees that produced the report expect it to solve the STEM problem described therein. What they should expect—indeed, what we should all expect—is for federal, state, and local policymakers to take this framework and apply greater rigor to additional data collection, analysis, synthesis, and well-described public policy solutions that are realistic, immediately actionable, and long-term in their approach.

As depicted in the report, there is a distinct set of stakeholders who should take notice: Federal and state governments, local school districts, higher education institutions, nonprofits, professional associations, scientific societies, industry and industrial organizations, federal laboratories, employers, and the philanthropic community.

The publication touches on how these sectors should interact, leaving much room for the formulation of a national- and state-specific framework for individual stakeholder involvement. Cross-sector collaboration and a unified set of priorities is necessary to achieve the overarching goal of seeing more underrepresented minority students receive STEM degrees and enter the scientific workforce.

I and others have called for a national STEM education and workforce agenda that promotes state- and regional-level action and takes into account the nation’s varied educational and workforce landscape. The National Academies report provides needed context for such a broad movement, including the role of higher education institutions that seek to transform their STEM culture and practice in favor of inclusivity.

Although the publication failed to push the research community in any one direction, it treads on much needed analysis by naming individual universities that lead the country in educating minority STEM bachelor’s recipients, as well as those who later complete Ph.D.s in these fields. These “baccalaureate origins” institutions include a number of HBCUs and a handful of predominantly White institutions.

In every case, particularly as it concerns success by the latter group, institutional leadership has been strong and unwavering. Uncovering more such institutions for each gender and racial/ethnic demographic for individual STEM fields is a clear next step; as is scaling up institutional policy that fosters such successes.

In sum, federal, state, and local policy leaders should view the National Academies report as a framework—as a set of prescriptive considerations—for immediate and tangible policy change with long-term impact. Our role, as a community of educators and STEM education stakeholders, is to make this agenda public.

After all, a renewed set of reasons to advance STEM education are before us: Continued rapid growth by the STEM labor market, a retiring baby-boomer population, global environmental and health-related problems that require diverse perspectives, and the fundamental need to advance American society in full. If this doesn’t speak to education policy leadership, I am not sure what will.

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.

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