STEM program consolidation: what we know and what we don’t…


Two months have passed since the Obama administration released its fiscal year 2014 budget request with a proposal to consolidate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and public outreach (EPO) programs across the federal government’s research and development enterprise. Many people I’ve talked with in the space community remain confused over the origin and intent of this proposal – which is, I would emphasize, a proposal, now in the process of being reviewed by Congress.

As far as I can tell, this consolidation proposal is one of the results of a STEM education review that began in President Obama’s first term. I recall that one of the first wave of political appointees and other “new people” who joined NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at NASA headquarters was a White House Fellow who was tasked with initiating a review of all of NASA’s education programs.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) – which “advises the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs” (according to – has been responsible for overseeing the administration’s STEM education review. The 2010 America COMPETES Reauthorization Act directed OSTP to create an interagency committee to develop a federal STEM education five-year strategic plan. OSTP’s National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) – a cabinet-level council that is “the principal body within the Executive branch that coordinates science and technology policy across the federal research and development enterprise” – tasked its Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), co-chaired by the heads of OSTP and NSF, with developing this plan. In response, CoSTEM chartered a Federal Coordination in STEM Education (FC-STEM) Task Force to develop a federal “STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan,” with CoSTEM oversight. NASA’s education chief Leland Melvin and NSF’s education chief Joan Ferrini-Mundy co-chaired this task force. CoSTEM also chartered an NSTC “Fast-Track Action Committee on Federal Investments in STEM” (FISTEM) to conduct an inventory of federal investments in STEM education. FI-STEM’s “Federal Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Portfolio,” released in December 2011, guided the development of the five-year plan.

The new five-year STEM strategic plan, released May 31, identifies five priority STEM education investment areas and two coordination strategies for organizing federal investments in STEM education.

According to CoSTEM, the “diversity of missions and approaches” to STEM EPO across federal agencies “has over time led to an uncoordinated Federal investment in STEM education. And STEM programs have proliferated to the point where in FY 2012, there were 226 programs across 13 different agencies…. This distributed approach to making critical investments in STEM education has made it difficult to ensure that Federal efforts are coherent, strategic, and leveraged for greatest impact. At the same time, the activities supported by the agencies have important functions, and with coordination the combined efforts can unquestionably be greater.”

CoSTEM members from the White House include Steve Robinson of the Domestic Policy Council (DPC) and Mary Cassell of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Mary Cassell is a senior program examiner in the Education Branch of OMB and a member of OMB’s performance evaluation team. Her program “territory” includes elementary and secondary education issues and federal programs that support the President’s No Child Left Behind initiative. Before joining OMB in 1995, Cassell was a legislative aide for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where she worked on 1994 revisions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that helped establish accountability and school improvement systems for public schools. Cassell has a master’s degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University.

Steve Robinson is on assignment as a special assistant to the DPC from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Robinson was a legislative assistant for education in the office of Senator Barack Obama. Robinson provided policy advice to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and worked on education issues with the Obama-Biden presidential transition team. He joined the Department of Education in February 2009 and was assigned to the White House DPC in September 2009. Before coming to work for Obama in the Senate, Robinson was a high school science teacher in Eugene, Oregon, and a member of the faculty of the University of Massachusetts. He grew up in the Chicago suburbs and holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Michigan. He has more than 15 years of teaching experience at middle school, high school, and postsecondary levels.

The administration’s FY 2014 budget request proposes to consolidate federal STEM education and outreach activities by putting the Department of Education in charge of K-12 education efforts, NSF in charge of higher education programs, and the Smithsonian Institution in charge of public outreach activities. CoSTEM’s five-year strategic plan for STEM education provides the following rationales for these choices.

The Department of Education (ED) “supports programs to improve education in the United States and has a broad mission to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness. Although only a small fraction of ED’s funding supports specific STEM education programs, STEM initiatives have been a competitive priority in such significant programs as Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation Fund. Given its mission, ED does not have substantial direct access to science and engineering research activities or to a STEM workforce through substantial in-house or external research and development (R&D) programs, but is developing approaches to partner effectively with the other CoSTEM agencies. ED brings unmatched reach to schools, teachers, and students across the Nation, and so this plan provides approaches for leveraging these important connections. Furthermore, ED is building a staff with expertise in STEM teaching, and the National Center for Education Statistics cultivates data critical for STEM education research, including for efforts like the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Mathematics and Science Education Research Grants Program.”

“In 2012, the Smithsonian [Institution] welcomed 30 million visitors to its public institutions and 103 million users to its website. In the context of Federal STEM activities, the Smithsonian has unique capabilities for serving as a clearinghouse that can reach a wide public audience.”

As for NSF, it has a long-standing role in advancing and improving undergraduate and graduate STEM education. Its Directorate for Education and Human Resources includes division on learning in formal and informal settings, graduate education, human resources development, and undergraduate education. According to CoSTEM, under the President’s plan, NSF “will increase its focus on improving the delivery of undergraduate STEM teaching and learning through evidence-based reforms, including a new $123 million program aimed at improving retention of undergraduates in STEM fields. NSF will also receive $325 million to expand and enhance its graduate fellowship programs, including creation of a new National Graduate Research Fellowship, using a common infrastructure at NSF to reach more students and offer a set of opportunities that address national needs and mission-critical workforce needs for the CoSTEM agencies.”

Top-priority STEM education investment areas identified in the CoSTEM five-year plan are to:

“1. Improve STEM Instruction. Prepare 100,000 excellent new K-12 STEM teachers by 2020, and support the existing STEM teacher workforce. (Lead: Dept. of Ed.)

2. Increase and sustain youth and public engagement in STEM. Support a 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. youth who have an effective, authentic STEM experience each year prior to completing high school. (Lead: SI)

3. Enhance STEM experience of undergraduate students. Graduate one million additional students with degrees in STEM fields over the next 10 years. (Lead: NSF)

4. Better serve groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields. Increase the number of underrepresented minorities that graduate college with STEM degrees in the next 10 years and improve women’s participation in areas of STEM where they are significantly underrepresented.

5. Design graduate education for tomorrow’s STEM workforce. Provide graduate- trained STEM professionals with basic and applied research expertise, options to acquire specialized skills in areas of national importance and mission agency’s needs, and ancillary skills needed for success in a broad range of careers.”

Approaches to coordinating STEM education initiatives across agencies identified in the plan are to:

*  “Build new models for leveraging assets and expertise. Implement a strategy of lead and collaborating agencies to leverage capabilities across agencies to achieve the most significant impact of Federal STEM education investments; and

*  Build and use evidence-based approaches. Conduct STEM education research and evaluation to build evidence about promising practices and program effectiveness, to be used across agencies, and share with the public to improve the impact of the Federal STEM education investment.”

In a “table of potential actions/outcomes/metrics” in the CoSTEM plan, one will find the following potential near-term action: “Identify scientific and engineering assets that are being effectively leveraged in existing investments on engagement. Build additional infrastructure to provide access to Federal engagement assets.” The potential outcome of this action would be to “identify agencies and assets that have evidence-based models of best practices in engagement.” The desired metric would be the “number of collaborations that draw on STEM assets with evidence of impact for engagement.”

While identifying evidence of impact is not easy, it’s not unreasonable to ask for it. And how might an agency go about collecting such evidence? In Appendix B of the CoSTEM plan, “Investment design principles,” are these suggestions:

“CoSTEM recommends that agencies create or regularly update logic models or theory-of-action documents, management plans, and evaluation strategies for their investments, and address how their investments incorporate the applicable design principles. 
As appropriate, investments should have a logic model or explicit theory of action that describes:

Clear overarching goals, specific investment objectives and measurable outcomes.

How the investment helps to fulfill the agency’s mission and connects to agency education or 
STEM assets and STEM education goals.

Results of needs assessments, stakeholder input, or environmental scans that helped shape the goals, objectives, and outcomes.

Alignment with evidence-based practices, promising practices of experienced professionals, and relevant education research.

Strategic partnering within the agency, or with other federal agencies, education organizations, or stakeholders, or why partnerships are not appropriate.

How the investment activities are likely to advance the goals and objectives 
As appropriate, investments should have a management plan that describes:

Needed expertise, staffing plan and how expertise is assured, plans for professional development 
of staff to implement design principles, and assignment of accountability for outcomes.

Strategies for dissemination or scale-up of promising practices and lessons learned in the course 
of implementation.

Plans for budget allocation and cost-sharing.

Strategic partnering within the agency, or with other Federal agencies, education organizations, or 
stakeholders, or why partnerships are not appropriate.

Resources needed for evaluation and staffing.”

While references are not the only indicator of research put into a report, this five-year STEM plan has 146 references, FYI.

It’s interesting to speculate about who influenced whom in the preparation of the President’s budget request and the CoSTEM five-year plan.

On June 4, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on the administration’s proposed STEM education reorganization, receiving testimony from NASA’s Leland Melvin; NSF director for education and human resources Joan Ferrini-Mundy; and OSTP director John Holdren.

According to the hearing charter, “Witnesses for [the] hearing were asked to discuss the National Science and Technology Council’s process for reviewing the STEM education portfolio across many different agencies and the role of CoSTEM in drafting the Administration’s proposed re-organization. They were also asked to discuss how decisions were made about program consolidations and cuts. Finally, they were asked how the proposed re-organization affects STEM programs nationwide.”

In his written testimony, Holdren said, “Guided by drafts of the [CoSTEM] strategic plan, the 2014 Budget [request] makes disciplined choices to consolidate and cut back lower-priority or narrow-purpose programs to make room for targeted increases…. These disciplined choices to consolidate and cut back lower-priority or narrow-purpose programs make room for targeted increases in high-priority areas.” In his testimony, Melvin said, “The Executive Office of the President recommended, and the President accepted, a FY14 Budget Request based in part on the work of the Committee on STEM, and the goals are the same.”

Speculation aside, the President’s consolidation proposal appears to be the product of a multi-year and very thorough review and analysis. Why it took people in the aerospace community by surprise is, well, surprising.


One Response to “STEM program consolidation: what we know and what we don’t…”

  1. Doug I. Says:

    Best summary I’ve seen of ‘why’ (not surprising, from you!) – but does the change have any real merit? For example, I don’t think it’s a given that ED has “unmatched reach” into schools, unless you are just counting numbers. Where is all this new STEM content going to come from? “Narrow-purpose programs” (probably named so from the outside by non-experts) can have a HUGE impact, individually or even systemically.

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