ALI Task Force Findings to Improve Education R&D

The Alliance for Learning Innovation (ALI) coalition, which includes the Federation of American Scientists, EdCounsel, and InnovateEdu, today celebrate the release of three task force briefs aimed at enhancing education research and development (“ed R&D”). With pressing issues such as declining literacy and math scores, chronic absenteeism, and the rise of technologies like AI, a strong ed R&D infrastructure is vital. In 2023, ALI convened three task forces to recommend ways to bolster ed R&D. The task forces focused on state and local ed R&D infrastructure, inclusive ed R&D, and the critical role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) in this ecosystem.

State and Local Education R&D Infrastructure

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Supporting R&D at the local level encourages an environment of continuous learning, accelerating improvements to educational methods based on new evidence and pioneering research. Therefore, given that over 90% of K-12 education funding comes from state and local sources, the ALI task force recommends that capacity-building, vision alignment, and investment in state and local education agencies (SEAs and LEAs) is prioritized. Preparing these entities to leverage R&D resources within their specific locales, in rural and urban contexts, will enable the infrastructure to best meet the unique needs of communities and students across the country. Additionally, supporting human capacity and development, modernizing data systems, and strengthening collaborative partnerships and fellowships across research institutions and key stakeholders in the ecosystem, will set the stage for more context-specific and effective ed R&D infrastructure at the state and local levels.

Inclusive Education R&D

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Traditional education R&D is often dominated by privileged institutions and individuals with outsized access to capital and opportunities, sidelining the needs and perspectives of historically marginalized communities. To address this imbalance, intentional efforts are needed to create a more inclusive R&D ecosystem. The task force recommends that government actors implement multidimensional measures of progress and simplify application processes for R&D funding. Continuing dialogue on equity and inclusion will create space for identifying possible biases in approaches and processes. In sum, inclusion is imperative to achieving greater equity in education and supporting all learners of diverse backgrounds and communities.

The Role of HBCUs, MSIs, & TCUs in Education R&D

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Achieving collaborative infrastructure and inclusion in ed R&D requires the strong participation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs). An equitable education R&D ecosystem must focus on the representation of these institutions and diverse student populations in research topics, grants, and funding to support learners from all backgrounds, particularly those of disadvantaged circumstances. Actionable steps include establishing diverse peer review panels, incentivizing grant proposals from minority-serving institutions, and creating specialized scholar programs. Additionally, programs should explicitly outline resource accessibility, leadership dynamics, funder relationships, grant processes, and inclusive language to dismantle structural inequalities and make the invisible visible.

Conclusion

Recommendations from the ALI task forces propose that sufficient funding, inclusivity, and diverse representation of higher education institutions are strong first steps in a path toward a more equitable and effective education system. The education R&D ecosystem must be a learning-oriented network committed to the principles of innovation that the system itself strives to promote across best practices in education and learning.

Thinking Big To Solve Chronic Absenteeism

Across the country in small towns and large cities, rural communities and the suburbs, millions of young people are missing school at astounding rates. They’re doing it with such frequency that educators are now tracking “chronic absenteeism.” 

It’s an important issue the White House is prioritizing. On May 15, the Biden-Harris Administration will host a summit on addressing chronic absenteeism. You can watch the livestream here, starting at 9:30 am ET.

This brand of truancy – where students are absent more than 10 percent of the time – is a problem in every state: Between 2018 and 2022, rates of chronic absenteeism nearly doubled, meaning an estimated 6.5 million more students are chronically absent today than six years ago. The New York Times recently reported that “something fundamental has shifted in American childhood and the culture of school, in ways that may be long lasting.”

But, like so many other issues in our country, chronic absenteeism hits some places harder than others. According to the non-profit organization Attendance Works, students from low-income and under-served communities are “much more likely to be enrolled in schools facing extreme levels of chronic absence.” When Attendance Works crunched the numbers, it found that in schools where at least 75 percent of students received a free or reduced-price lunch, the rates of chronic absenteeism nearly tripled, increasing from 25 percent to 69 percent between 2017 and 2022.

This alarming trend has educators and policymakers scrambling for solutions, from better bus routes to automated messaging systems for parents to “early warning” attendance tracking. These are important pursuits, but alone they won’t solve the problem.

Why? Because experts and research show that chronic absenteeism is only a symptom of a larger, more complex problem. For too many young people of color, school can be out of touch with the lives they live, so they’ve stopped going, to the point that experts predict that attendance rates won’t return to pre-COVID levels until 2030.

In these schools, the curriculum can lack rigor and their inflexible policies can harm students’ mental health and stifle the inquisitive optimism they might otherwise bring to school each day. Enrichment programs are few and far between, and students lack meaningful relationships with faculty and staff. For many kids, school is irrelevant and unwelcoming. 

If schools and policymakers want to solve the problem of chronic absenteeism – particularly in under-served communities – then they must invest in new ideas, research, and tools that will make school a place where kids feel welcomed and engaged, and where learning is relevant. In short, a school needs to be a place where kids want to be. Every. Single. Day.

Teachers, principals, and superintendents know this, and they work to make their schools and classrooms warm, fun, and challenging. But they are swimming against the tide, and they cannot be expected to do this alone. The U.S. must direct and support its brightest minds and boldest innovators to attack this problem. It can do so by making a national investment in research and development efforts to explore new approaches to learning.

The U.S. has already made a big bet on innovation for sectors like defense and health – and in space exploration in the 1960s when JFK challenged the nation to put men on the moon. This kind of “imagine if…” R&D has not yet been applied to education. 

Let’s create a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE), inspired by DARPA, the R&D engine behind the Internet and GPS. This new center would enable informed-risk, high-reward R&D to come up with new approaches and systems that would make learning relevant and fun. It could also produce innovations and creative new ways to increase family engagement – a big factor that contributes to absenteeism – improve access to technology, and even test and assess alternative discipline programs aimed at keeping kids in school rather than suspending them.

As one example, a study shows that texting parents with attendance tips and alerts effectively reduces absenteeism. Another study worked with a school district to send over 32,000 texts to families and saw attendance increase by 15 percent.

As the nation’s schools face the daunting task of post-COVID recovery, efforts to stem chronic absenteeism that tinker around the edges won’t solve the problem. NCADE could drive the transformative solutions that are needed with a nimble, multidisciplinary approach to advance bold, “what if…” R&D projects based on their potential to transform education. 

Consider the possibilities of virtual reality. In partnership with edtech startup Transfr, several Boys & Girls Clubs are leveraging virtual reality to help students plan for their future careers. With VR technology, students can peek into a cell or stand on a planet’s surface. Imagine if NCADE could further develop an early concept for an AI-assisted “make your own song” program for students with speech-language development challenges. Or, it could support the creation of customized, culturally relevant assessments, made possible through machine learning, that make test-taking less intimidating. 

Chronic absenteeism is a complex problem caused by a number of factors, but the theme running through all of them is that for too many students, schools don’t offer the types of learning opportunities or supports that make learning engaging, meaningful, and relevant to their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s act boldly to harness innovation and make school inviting, accessible, and worthwhile for all students.

How the NEED Act Would Ensure CHIPS Doesn’t Crumble

A year and a half after its passage, money is starting to flow from the CHIPS and Science Act to create high-paying, high-tech jobs. In Phoenix, for example, the chip manufacturer Intel will receive billions to help build two new computer chip manufacturing plants that will transform the area into one of the world’s most important players in modern electronics. 

That project was one of several – totaling nearly $20 billion – announced recently with Intel for computer chip plants in Arizona, Ohio, New Mexico and Oregon. The company said the investments will create a combined 30,000 manufacturing and construction jobs.

With numbers like that, it’s easy to see why all of the attention and headlines for the legislation thus far have focused on the “CHIPS” part of the law. But now, it is time for Congress to put its bipartisan support behind the “and Science” or risk the momentum the law has created. 

That’s because both the law and the semiconductor industry recognize that the U.S. needs a bigger, more inclusive science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce to fulfill the needs of a robust high-tech manufacturing industry. While CHIPS sets the conditions for a revitalized domestic semiconductor industry, it also calls for improved “access to education, opportunity, and services” to support and develop the workers needed to fill these new jobs.

The numbers show the U.S. lags behind its global competitors when it comes to math and science achievement. Middle school math scores are exceptionally low: only 26 percent of all eighth-grade students scored “proficient” on the math portion of the National Assessment of Education Progress in 2022. This presents big problems down the road for higher education.

To put it more bluntly: at a time when CHIPS is poised to ramp up demand for STEM graduates, the nation’s education system is unprepared to produce them

So what’s a fix? A good first step would be for Congress to pass the New Essential Education Discoveries (NEED) Act to improve the nation’s capabilities to conduct education research and development. NEED would create the National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE), a new Center within the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education to develop innovative practices, tools, systems, and approaches to boost achievement among young people in the wake of the pandemic.

NCADE would enable an informed-risk, high-reward R&D strategy for education – the kind that’s already taking place in other sectors, like health, agriculture, and energy. It’s akin to the approach that fuels the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has led to innovations like GPS, the Internet, stealth technology, and even the computer mouse. Education needs something like this, and NEED will create it – a flexible, nimble research center pushing transformational education innovations.

The passing of the CHIPS and Science Act was a strong indication that Republicans and Democrats can work together to solve big, complex problems when motivated to do so. Passing the NEED Act will show that the same bipartisan spirit can ensure the long-term success of the law while simultaneously setting the course for vast and fundamental improvements to the nation’s schools and universities through improved R&D in education.

President Looks to Education Innovation in the FY25 Budget Request

On March 11, 2024, the President released his budget for Fiscal Year 2025, and it spells good news for advocates and educators who are concerned about research and development opportunities and infrastructure in the education sector. New funding caps imposed by the Fiscal Responsibility Act have tempered many advocates’ expectations. However, by requesting increases for key federal education R&D programs across multiple agencies, the Biden-Harris administration has signaled that it continues to value investments in education innovation, even in a budget-conscious political climate.

An analysis of the proposal by the Alliance for Learning Innovation (ALI) found a lot to like. The President’s Budget would send $815.5 million to the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) to invest in education research, development, dissemination, and evaluation. This is $22.5 million higher than IES received in Fiscal Year 2024. This includes $38.5 million for Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems, a 35 percent increase over Fiscal Year 2024. 

Agency/ProgramFY24 EnactedFY25 President’s Budget RequestIncrease% Change
Institute for Education Sciences$793M$815.5M$22.5M3%
Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems$28.5M$38.5M$10M35%
Accelerate, Transform, and Scale (ATS) Initiative$30M$52.7M$22.7M76%
Education Innovation and Research$259M$269M$10M4%
HBCU, TCCU, MSI R&D Infrastructure Grants$50M$100M$50M50%
National Science Foundation$1.72B$1.3B$128M11%

Notably, the President is asking for $52.7 million to grow the Accelerate, Transform, and Scale (ATS) Initiative at IES. This is 76 percent higher than the $30 million IES originally put into the initiative in 2023 when Congress directed the agency to “use a portion of its fiscal year 2023 appropriation to support a new funding opportunity for quick turnaround, high-reward scalable solutions intended to significantly improve outcomes for students.” 

The ATS Initiative, widely regarded as a pilot for a possible National Center for Advanced Development in Education, is inspired by Advanced Research Project Agencies  across the federal government – and around the world – that build insights from basic research to develop and scale breakthrough innovations. Like ARPAs, ATS invests in big ideas that emerge from interdisciplinary, outside-the-box collaboration. It aims to solve the nation’s steepest challenges in education.

The President’s request for ATS includes $2 million for a new research and development center on how generative artificial intelligence is being used in classrooms across the U.S. According to the Congressional Justification for IES, this new center will “develop and test innovative uses of this technology and will establish best practices for evidence building about generative AI in education that not only address the effectiveness of the technology for learning, but also consider issues of bias, fairness, transparency, trust and safety.”

Outside of IES, the President’s Budget calls for additional investments in education innovation. For example, it requests $269 million for the Education Innovation and Research program, housed at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. If fulfilled, this would be a $10 million increase over last year. The President also wants Congress to send $100 million to the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to expand R&D infrastructure at four-year Historically Black Colleges or Universities, Tribally Controlled Colleges or Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions.

The Biden-Harris administration’s support for education R&D is also reflected in its requests for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The President’s Budget requests $1.3 billion for the NSF’s Directorate for STEM Education – $128 million above its Fiscal Year 2024 level. Moreover, it includes $900 million to fund the important work of NSF’s newest directorate, authorized in the CHIPS and Science Act: the Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) Directorate. TIP runs important R&D initiatives, such as the VITAL Prize Challenge and America’s Seed Fund, that support teaching and learning innovations. 

ALI looks forward to advocating for a robust investment in education R&D in Fiscal Year 2025. The President’s Budget provides a solid marker for the coalition’s efforts.

K-12 STEM Education For the Future Workforce: A Wish List for the Next Five Year Plan

This report was prepared in partnership with the Alliance for Learning Innovation (ALI), to advocate for building a better research and development (R&D) infrastructure in education. The Federation of American Scientists believes that STEM education evolution is necessary to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s in-demand scientific and technological careers, as well as being a national security pursuit.

American STEM Education in Context

“This country is in the midst of a STEM and data literacy crisis,” opined Elena Gerstmann and Laura Albert in a recent piece for The Hill. Their sentiment represents a widely held concern that America’s global leadership in scientific and technological innovation, anchored in educational excellence, is being relinquished, thereby jeopardizing our economy and national security. Their message recycles a 65-year-old warning to U.S. policy makers, educators, and employers when the USSR seemingly eclipsed our innovation pace with the launch of Sputnik. 

Life magazine devoted their March 1958 edition to a scathing comparison of the playful approach to STEM education in U.S. schools versus the no-nonsense rigor of Russian classrooms. The issue’s theme, “Crisis in Education” was summed up soberly: “The outcomes of the arms race will depend eventually on our schools and those of the Russians.” America answered the bell and came out swinging. Under President Eisenhower, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) were both established in 1958, as was the National Defense Education Act that channeled billions of dollars into K-12 and collegiate STEM education. By innumerable metrics (the Apollo program, the internet, GPS, and manufacturing dominance, all fueled by an internationally envied higher education system), the United States reclaimed preeminence in STEM innovation.

LIFE March 24, 1958

Over the next four decades tectonic shifts in demographics, economics, and politics rearranged continental competition such that complacent U.S. education systems were once again called on the carpet. In 2001, shortly before terrorists struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon, a U.S. Senate report on homeland vulnerability echoed that of Life magazine decades prior: “The inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”  The painfully prescient study, product of the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security/21st Century, identified the advancement of information technology, bioscience, energy production, and space science, all overlain by economic and geopolitical destabilization, as the nation’s greatest challenge and our new Sputnik. The Commission called on reformed education systems to quadruple the number of scientists and engineers and to dramatically increase the number and skills of science and mathematics teachers. As in 1958, leaders responded boldly, creating the Department of Homeland Security in 2001, and planting the seeds for the 2007 America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act.

Funding for research and development across federal agencies significantly increased over the decade, including a budget boost for the National Science Foundation’s grant programs supporting emergent scholars (Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER), the research capacities of targeted jurisdictions (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR), Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF), the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarships, the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, and others designed to bolster diverse talent pipelines to STEM careers. Despite increases in the number of students studying science and engineering in the U.S, there is still a significant gap in diverse representation and equitable access to opportunities in the STEM field; ensuring greater inclusion and diversity in the American science and engineering landscape is essential to engaging the “missing millions,” or persistently underrepresented minority groups and women, in the nation’s STEM workforce and education programs.

Nearly a quarter century later, America is once again in a STEM talent crisis. The solutions of Hart-Rudman and of the Eisenhower era need an update. This latest Sputnik moment, unlike the space race that motivated the National Defense Education Act, and the terrorism that spawned Homeland Security, is more perfuse and profound, permeating every aspect of our lives: artificial intelligence and machine learning, CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat), quantum computing, 6G and 7G communications, semiconductors, hydrogen and other energy sources, lithium and other ionic energy storage, robotics, big data, blockchain, biopharmaceuticals, and other emergent technologies.

To relinquish the lead in these arenas would put the U.S. economy, national security, and social fabric in the hands of other nations. Our new USSR is a roulette wheel of friends and foes vying for STEM supremacy including Singapore, Japan, China, Germany, the UK, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea and many more. Not unlike the education crises that came to a head in 1958 and in 2001, our educational Achilles heel is a lack of exposure to and under-preparedness for STEM career pursuit for the majority of diverse young Americans. Further, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that STEM career opportunities will grow 10.8% by 2032, more than four times faster than non-STEM occupations.

What the United States has going for it in 2024 (and was comparatively lacking in the 1950s and the early 2000s) are STEM-rich local schools, communities, and states. Powered by investments of federal agencies (e.g., Smithsonian, NSF, NASA, DOL, ED and others), state governments (governors in Massachusetts, Iowa, Alabama, for example), nonprofits (Project Lead The Way and the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM for example), and industries (Regeneron, Collins Aerospace, John Deere, Google, etc.), STEM is now seen as an imperative field by most Americans.  

Today’s STEM education landscape presents significant opportunities and challenges. Existing models of excellence demonstrate readiness to scale. To focus on what works and to channel resources in the direction of broader impacts for maximal benefit is to answer the call of our omni-present 2024 Sputnik.

The Current State: Future STEM Workforce Cultivation

At its root, STEM education is about workforce cultivation for high-demand and high-skill occupations of fundamental importance to American economic vitality and national security. In the ideal state, STEM education also prepares all learners to be critical thinkers who make evidence-based decisions by equipping them with analytical, computational, and scientific ways of knowing. STEM students should learn effective collaboration and problem-solving skills with an interdisciplinary approach, and feel prepared to apply STEM skills and knowledge to everyday life as voters, consumers, parents, and citizens.1

Target Audiences and Service Providers 

The early childhood education community (pre-K-grade 3), both in school and out-of-school (at informal learning centers), has emerged over the last decade as a prime target for boosting STEM education as research findings accumulate around the importance of early exposure to and comfort with STEM concepts and processes. Popular providers of kits and activities, curricula, software platforms, and professional development for educators include Hand2Mind (Numberblocks), Robo Wunderkind, StoryTimeSTEM (Dragonland), NewBoCo (Tiny Techies), BirdBrain Tech (Finch robot), FIRST Lego League (Discover), Museum of Science Boston (Wee Engineer), Iowa Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education (Light & Shadow), and Mind Research (Spatial-Temporal Math).  

The elementary to middle school level of STEM education options both in and out of school enjoys the richest menu of STEM programming on the market, reflecting stronger curricular freedom to integrate content compared to high schools. Popular STEM programs include Blackbird Code, Derivita Math, FUSE Studio, Positive Physics, Micro:bit, Nepris (now Pathful), Project Lead The Way (Launch and Gateway), FIRST Tech Challenge, Code.org (CS Discoveries), Bootstrap Data Science, and many more.    

The secondary education STEM landscape differs from pre-K-8 in a significant way: although discrete STEM activities and programs are plentiful for integration into secondary science, mathematics, and other classes, the adoption of packaged courses or after-school enrichment opportunities is more common. Project Lead The Way and Code.org offer an array of stand-alone elective STEM courses2, as do local community colleges and universities. Nonprofits and industry sources offer STEM enrichment programs such as the Society of Women Engineers’ SWEnext Leadership Academy, Google’s CodeNext, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers’ Virtual STEM Labs, and Girls Who Code’s Summer Immersion. Finally, a number of federal, state, nonprofit and business organizations conduct future workforce programs for targeted students including the federal TRIO program, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), and Jobs For the Future (JFF). 

 Investment in STEM Education 

A modestly conservative estimate of the total American investment in STEM education annually is $12 billion, nearly the equivalent of the entire budget of the National Science Foundation or the Environmental Protection Agency. 

For fiscal year 2023 the White House budgeted $4.0424 billion for STEM education across 16 agencies that make up the Subcommittee on Federal Coordination in STEM Education (FC-STEM). Total nonprofit and philanthropic investments are more elusive since there are so many, with origins of their dollars often overlapping with state or local government (grants for example), and wildly variable definitions of STEM investments. That said, U.S. charitable giving to the education sector totaled $64 billion in 2019. A reasonable assumption that two percent made its way to STEM education equates to over $1 billion contributed to the overall funding pie. Business and industry in the United States contribute well over $5 billion annually, a conservative estimated proportion of total annual STEM education market share among ten nations, according to a recent study. K-12 schools spend well over $1 billion on STEM, a minimally modest fraction of the $870 billion total spent on K-12 across the U.S. The same figure would likely be true of America’s annual $700 billion higher education expenditure, minimally $1 billion to STEM. Elusive as definitive figures can be in this space, a glaring reality is that funds are streaming into STEM education at a level where measurable results should be expected. Are resources being distributed for maximal impact? Are measures capturing that impact? Is it enough money?

There are approximately 55.4 million K-12 students across the nation. At $12 billion per year on STEM, that comes to about $217 worth of STEM education annually per young American. Is that enough to move the needle? The answer is a qualified “yes” based on Iowa’s experience. The state launched a legislatively funded STEM education program in 2012, investing on average about $4.2 million annually to provide enrichment opportunities for about one-fifth of all K-12 students, or 100,000 per year. To date, about 1.2 million youth have been served through a total investment of about $50 million. That calculates to $42 per student. The result? Among participants: increased standardized test scores in math and science; increased interest in STEM study and careers; a near doubling of post-secondary STEM majors at community colleges and universities. Thus, from Iowa’s experience, the amount of funding toward American STEM education is adequate to expect systemic gains. The qualifier is that Iowa funds flow toward increased equity (most needy are top priority), school-work alignment (career linked curriculum, professional development), and proof of effectiveness (rigorously vetted and carefully monitored programs). Variance in these three factors can separate ambitions from realities.

Ambitions vs. Realities

The federal STEM education strategic plan Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education, identified three consensus goals for U.S. STEM education: a strong STEM literacy foundation for all Americans; increased diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM study and work; and preparation of the STEM workforce of the future. Three challenges lie between those goals and reality.

Elusive equity. The provision of quality STEM education opportunities to Americans most in need is universally embraced yet difficult to achieve at the program level. Unequal funding of school STEM programs across urban, rural, and suburban public and private school districts equate to less experienced educators and diminished material resources (laboratories, computers, transportation to enrichment experiences) in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. The challenge is then compounded by the lack of role models to inspire and support youth of underserved subpopulations by race, ability, ethnicity, gender, and geography. Bias, whether implicit or explicit, fuels stereotype threat and identity doubt for too many individuals in schools, colleges, and workplaces, countering diversity and equity efforts.    

School-work misalignment. For most learners, the school experience can seem quite different from the higher education which follows, and the work and life experiences beyond. Employer and learner polls unearth misalignment in priorities: employers value in new hires skills such as relationship building, dealing with complexity and ambiguity, balancing opposing views, collaboration, co-creativity, and cultural sensitivity, in addition to expectations of work-related experiences. Schools typically proclaim missions like “Educating each student to be a lifelong learner and a caring, responsible citizen” omitting the importance of employability. Learners feel that school taught them time management, academic knowledge, and analytical skills, while experiential learning remains limited.

Elusive proof. Evidence of effect can be vexingly evasive. The 2022 progress report of the federal STEM plan clarified the difficulty in verifying reach to those most in need: the identification of participants in STEM programs can be restricted for privacy/legality reasons. The gathering of racial, ethnic, and demographic data on STEM participants may often be unreliable given self-reported or observational identifications as well as the fleeting, often anonymous encounters typical of “STEM Night” or informal experiences at science centers, zoos, and museums.  

Participant profiles aside, variability in program assessments – design and objectives – make meaningful meta-analysis challenging, which creates difficulties in scaling promising STEM programs. “We recommend that states and programs prioritize research and evaluation using a common framework, common language, and common tools” advised a group of evaluators recently.     

Exemplars 

Plentiful success stories exist at the local, regional, and national levels. The following six exemplars are each funded in whole or in part by federal and/or state grants. The first examples are local education systems (one in-school, one out-of-school) masterfully aligning learning experiences to career preparation. The second pair of examples profile a regional out-of-school STEM program powerfully documenting effects on participants, and an in-school enrichment course demonstrating success. And the final pair of examples are a nationwide equity program successfully preparing STEM educators to effectively serve students of diversity, and an exciting consortium effort aimed at refocusing the entire educational enterprise on skills that matter most.

1.a. School-work alignment at the local level

The Barrow Community School District (BCSD) in Georgia is strongly committed to work-based learning (WBL). All 15,000 students are required to take a sequence of exploratory STEM career classes beginning in ninth grade. Fifteen career pathways are available ranging from computing to health, manufacturing to engineering. It all culminates in an optional senior year internship serving 400 students annually. Interns earn dual-enrollment credits in partnership with local colleges and are paid by the employer host. Interns spend 7.5 to 15 hours per week at work experiences in a hospital, on a construction site, or in a production plant. The district employs a full time WBL coordinator to oversee, administer, and evaluate, as well as to cultivate community employer partners. Teachers are expected to spend one week in an industry externship every three to five years. The BCSD commitment to a school experience aligned to future careers is something that every student in any district ought to be able to experience.

1.b. Diverse workforce of the future – local-to-global level

The World Smarts STEM Challenge is a community-based, after-school, real-world problem-solving experience for student workforce development. Funded by a 2021 National Science Foundation ITEST (Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers) grant in partnership with North Carolina State University, students in the Washington D.C. area are assigned bi-national groups (arranged through a partnership with the International Research and Exchanges Board) to collaborate in solving local/global STEM issues via virtual communications. Groups are mentored by industry professionals. In the process, students develop skills in innovation, investigation, problem-solving, and global citizenship for careers in STEM. Participant diversity is a primary objective. Learners of underrepresented backgrounds, including Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, and female students, are actively recruited from local schools. Educator-facilitators are treated to professional development opportunities to build mentorship skills that support students. The end-product is a World Smarts STEM Activation Kit for implementing the model elsewhere.

2.a. Proof of effect at the regional level out-of-school

NE STEM 4U is an after-school program serving Omaha, Nebraska regional elementary school youth. Programs are hands-on problem-based challenges relevant to children. The staff were interested in the effect of their activities on the excitement, curiosity, and STEM concept gains of participants. The instrument they chose to use is the Dimensions of Success (DoS) observational tool of the P.E.A.R. Institute (Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency). The DoS is conducted by a certified administrator who observes and rates four groups of criteria: the learning environment itself, level of engagement in the activity, STEM knowledge and skills gained, and relevancy. Through multiple cohorts over two years, the DoS findings validated the learning approach at NE STEM 4U across dimensions, though with natural variations in positive effect. The upshot is not only that this after-school model is readily replicable, but that the DoS observation tool is a thoroughly vetted, powerful, and readily available instrument that could become a “common tool” in the STEM education program evaluation community.  

2.b. Proof of effect at the regional school level

From a modest New York origin in 1997, Project Lead The Way (PLTW) has blossomed into a nationwide tour de force in STEM education, funded by the Kern Foundation, Chevron, and other philanthropies. Adopted at the community school level where trained educators integrate units at the pre-K-5 and middle school levels (Launch, and Gateway, respectively), or offer courses at the secondary level (Algebra, Computer Science, Engineering, Biomedical), all share a common focus on developing in-demand, transportable skills like problem solving, critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and communication. Career connections are a mainstay. To that end, PLTW is notable for expecting schools to form advisory boards of local employers for feedback and connections. Attitudinal surveys attest to increased student interest in STEM careers. 

3.a. Equity at the national level – diversity and inclusion

The National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) offers a wide array of professional development programs related to STEM equity. One module is called Micromessaging to Reach and Teach Every Student. Educators in and out of school convey micro-messages to students at every encounter. Micro-messages are subtle and typically unconscious. Sometimes they are helpful – a smile or eye contact. Sometimes they can be harmful towards individuals or reveal bias towards a group to which a student may belong – a furrowed brow or a stereotypical comment. Exceedingly rare is micro-message expertise in the teacher preparatory pipeline or in standard professional development. Yet micro-messaging is tremendously influential in the self-perceptions of learners as welcome in STEM. 

3.b. Equity at the national level – leveling the playing field

Durable skills – e.g., teamwork, collaboration, negotiation, empathy, critical thinking, initiative, risk-taking, creativity, adaptability, leadership, and problem-solving – define jobs of the future. AI and automation cannot replace durable skills. The nonprofit America Succeeds has championed a list of 100 durable skills grouped into 10 competencies, based on industry input. They studied state standards for college and career readiness against those competencies and prescribe remedies to states whose standards fall short (most U.S. states). Durable Skills, packaged by America Succeeds, is an equity service par excellence – every learner can command these 100 enduring skills, setting them up for success.

Black and white photo of early 20th century science class

The Case for Increased Investment in STEM Education R&D at the Federal and State Level

Billions of dollars pour into American STEM education each year. Millions of learners and employers benefit from the investment. Outstanding programs produce undeniably successful results for individuals and organizations. And yet, “This country is in the midst of a STEM and data literacy crisis.” How can that be? Here are some of the factors in play.

Recent STEM Education/Workforce Investment Trends

The bi-annual Science and Technology Indicators compiled by the National Science Board were released in March 2024. Noteworthy findings (necessarily a couple of years old given the retrospective analysis) include:

The federal government funds 52% of all academic research and development taking place at colleges and universities (2021).

Contrasting the findings of the NSB against current federal budgets, FY2024 appropriation for STEM education research and development is a work in progress. In comparison to FY23, the budget presented to Congress by the executive branch called for increases for STEM spending across many agencies but not all. The U.S. House and Senate generally propose reductions in spending. The Defense Department’s STEM education line, for example, the National Defense Education Program, is slated for significant reduction (-7.3 percent to -20 percent). The Department of Energy’s Office of Science which funds STEM education, is slated for a slight increase (+1.7 percent). The same is true for the NSF’s STEM education programs (+1.6 percent). NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement is on track for a slight decrease (-.3 percent). The Department of Agriculture’s Research and Education budget is down slightly (-1.7 percent). The U.S. Geological Survey’s Science Support budget that includes human capital development, is down slightly (-1.2 percent). The Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences was slated for significant increase by the executive branch though slated for reduction in both the House and Senate budgets. The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology budget which includes funding for university-based centers and minority institution programs is set for reduction (-1.3 percent to -19 percent).

Significant STEM education and workforce development support resides within the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 which has yet to be fully funded by the Congress. An overall trend in shifting R&D, including education, from federal to private sector support means greater reliance on business and industry to invest in STEM program development. The NSB Indicators report highlights this shift in R&D investment: federal government investment in R&D is at 19 percent in 2021 (down from 30 percent in 2011), while the business sector now funds 75 percent of U.S. R&D funding.

A bottom-line interpretation is that federal investment in STEM education/workforce development, though significant, can hardly be described as a generational response to an economic and national security crisis.

Emergent Frontiers

Meanwhile, economic Sputniks are circling the globe. All driven by semiconducting silicon and germanium chips. Yet another testament to American STEM education is the home-grown invention of chips. But they are built mostly elsewhere – Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Semiconductors lie at the heart of our communications (e.g. cell phones, satellites), transportation (e.g. planes, trains, automobiles), defense (e.g. guidance systems and risk analytics), health (e.g. pacemakers, insulin pumps), lifestyle (e.g. dishwashers, Siri and Alexa), and virtually every other aspect of life and commerce. The federal government committed $53 billion through the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act to expand semiconductor talent development, research, and manufacture in the U.S., amplified by $231 billion in commitments to semiconductor development by business and industry. Guidance through the National Strategy on Microelectronics Research was recently released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. When fully realized, the CHIPS Act may come to be a generational response to an international adversarial threat far more profound than Sputnik. 

Equally compelling and weighty in terms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is to lead in research and development as well as governance around artificial intelligence. Extraordinary workplace and homelife evolution are underway resulting from applications of this new technology. For example, AI dramatically increases precision and thus reduces error in health care. Machine learning is far superior to human eyes at image analysis – MRI or x-ray – for detecting cancer early. On a lighter note, machine learning can dramatically increase the likely appeal of new movies by compressing millions of historic data points and a sea of YouTube videos into a sure box office hit. Conversely are the misuses both present and potential, to AI. The displacement of radiologists, movie script writers, and countless others whose routine, analytical, or creative skills can be performed by robots and neural networked sensors is troublesome yes, but a mild effect of AI compared to the proneness of our privacy, our democratic systems, business and finance integrity, and national defense structures for starters.

The White House Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights plants an important stake in the ground around AI safeguards. But it does not speak to the cultivation of future managers of AI. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education report Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning advises on risks of and uses for AI in diagnostics and descriptive statistics. However, guidance for preparing the upcoming generation to manage AI is not included. The National Science Foundation supports several AI-education studies that may prove worthy of scaling.

A potpourri of additional emergent trends fuel the current STEM crisis. Many are technological innovations, unearthing powers of manipulation and control with which society is ill-prepared to manage. Quantum computing is one such innovation – using subatomic particle positioning, qubits, to store information. Computers will become exponentially faster and more powerful, possibly solving climate change while also deciphering everyone’s passwords. Relatedly, revolutions in cybersecurity and data analytics may be out ahead of societal grasp. Many educational programs at the local and national levels have emerged in this space, including eCybermission from the Army Education Outreach Program (AEOP), and Data Science Foundations using sports, finance, and other contexts for sense-making, from EverFi.

Not everyone needs to know how a microwave oven works in order to use it effectively. But U.S. citizens bear the responsibility for weighing ethical, equitable, and legal dimensions of STEM advancements as voters, educators, parents, and consumers. Whether it be CRISPR alterations of individuals’ genetics, socioeconomic dimensions of factory automation, morality aspects of Directed Energy Weaponry (DEW), the cost/benefit balance of climate mitigation technologies such as carbon sequestration, and so on, STEM education and workforce development need to be out front. That requires additional investment.

Supply-Demand Imbalance

Emergent technologies will drive job opportunities in the STEM arena that are expected to grow at four times the rate of jobs in other sectors in the coming decade. While it is encouraging that post-secondary STEM certificates and degrees have increased over the last decade (growing from 982,000 in 2012 to 1,310,000 in 2021), this growth is a ripple when the field needs a wave. Further, significant subpopulations of Americans are underrepresented in STEM majors and jobs. Women make up just about one-third of the science and engineering workforce. While racial and ethnic subgroups including Alaska Native, Black or African American, American Indian, and Hispanic or Latino comprise 30% of the total workforce, just 23% are in STEM jobs. Rural residency exacerbates those disparities for all subpopulations regarding the STEM education pipeline. While 40% of urban adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, only 25% of rural residents do.

The commitment to diversify the STEM talent pipeline is a universal consensus across federal, state, local, corporate, nonprofit, and philanthropic investors in STEM education and workforce development. Numerous programs devoted to equity and inclusion are at work today with promising results, ripe for scaling.

Impact on Individuals and Society

Of all the arguments supporting increased investment in STEM education R&D to solve our current STEM crisis – tepid federal spending, ominously powerful inventions, and the dearth of talent for advancing and managing those inventions – a fourth argument eclipses each of them: STEM education improves the lives of individuals irrespective of their occupation. And in so doing, STEM education improves communities and the country at large.

Learners fortunate to enjoy quality STEM education develop creativity through imaginative design, interpretation, and representation of investigations. The tools they use strengthen technology literacy. The mode of discovery is highly social, honing communication and cooperation skills. With no sage-on-the-stage they develop independence of thought. Failure happens, forging perseverance and resilience in its wake. Asking and answering questions nurtures curiosity. Defending and refuting ideas cultivates critical thinking, Truth and facts are evidence-based yet always tentative. Empathy is cultivated through alternative interpretations or points of view. And confidence to pursue STEM as a career comes from doing STEM.

The prospect of an entire population of Americans thus equipped is the most compelling case for strategically increased R&D investment in STEM education.

Photo of 2008 Ethics in the Science Classroom

Policy Recommendations for Increasing the Efficacy of Education R&D to Support STEM Education

Where do federal, state, local, corporate, nonprofit, and philanthropic STEM investors look for guidance in the alignment and leveraging of their dollars to nationwide priorities? The closest we have to a “master plan” is the federal STEM education strategic plan mandated by the America COMPETES Act. Updated every five years by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in close collaboration with federal agencies, the 2018-2023 plan is due for an update, and it is likely the next iteration will be released soon. 

While the STEM community waits, valuable input on the next iteration was recently provided to the OSTP from the STEM Education Coalition. Coalition members, (numbering over 600) represent the spectrum of STEM advocates – business and industry, higher education, formal and informal K-12 education, nonprofits, and national/state policy groups – and collectively hold great sway in matters of STEM education nationally. The expiring federal STEM plan is closely reflective of their input, as its successor likely will be as well. 

Six of the following ten recommendations build upon the STEM Education Coalition’s priorities, while the remaining four recommendations address gaps in the pipeline from STEM education to workforce pathways.

In order to maximize research and development to improve STEM education, we have distilled ten recommendations:

  1. Devote resources (human and financial) to both the scaling of, and continued research and development in, interventions that disrupt the status quo when it comes to rural under-reach and under-service in STEM education.
  2. Devote resources to both the scaling of, and continued research and development in transdisciplinary (a.k.a. Convergent) STEM teaching and learning, formally and informally.
  3. STEM teacher recruitment and training to support learning characterized on page 11 is a high-value target for investment in both the scaling of existent models as well as research and development on this essential frontier.
  4. Expand student authentic career-linked or work-based learning experiences to all, earning credits while acquiring job skills, by improving coordination capacity, and crediting – especially earning core (graduation) credits. 
  5. Devote resources to research and development on coordination across components of the STEM education system – in school and out of school, educator preparation – at the local, state and national levels.
  6. Devote resources to research and development toward improved awareness/communication systems of Federal STEM education agencies.
  7. Devote resources to research and development on supporting the training of STEM teachers and professionals for career coaching on a real-time, as-needed basis for all youth.
  8. Devote resources to research and development on the expansion of local/global challenge-solution learning opportunities and how they  influence student self-efficacy and STEM career trajectories.
  9. Devote resources to research and development of a digital platform readily accessible, easily navigable, and comprehensively thorough, for education-providers to harvest effective, vetted STEM programs from across the entire producer spectrum.
  10. Devote resources to the design and development of a catalog of STEM/workforce education “discoveries” funded by federal grant agencies (e.g., NSF’s I-Test, DR-K12, INCLUDES, CSforAll, etc.) to be used by STEM educators, developers and practitioners.

Recommendation 1. Devote resources (human and financial) to both the scaling of, and continued research and development in, interventions that disrupt the status quo when it comes to rural under-reach and under-service in STEM education.

Aligning to the STEM Ed Coalition’s priority of “Achieving Equity in STEM Education Must Be a National Priority,” this recommendation is central to the success of STEM education. The economic and moral imperative to broaden access to quality STEM education and to high-demand STEM careers is a national consensus. Lack of access and opportunity across rural America, where 20% of all youth attend half of all school districts  and where persistent inequality hits members of racial and ethnic minority groups hardest, creates a high-value target.

STEM Excellence and Leadership Project

Identifying and nurturing STEM talent in rural K-12 settings can be a challenge. The Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development successfully designed and implemented the “STEM Excellence and Leadership Project” at the middle school level. Funded by the NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program, flexible professional development, wide-net-casting of students, networking within the community, and career-counseling, resulted in increased creatively, critical thinking, and positive perceptions of mathematics and science.

Recommendation 2. Devote resources to both the scaling of, and continued research and development in transdisciplinary (a.k.a. Convergent) STEM teaching and learning, formally and informally. 

Aligning to the STEM Ed Coalition’s Priority “Science Education Must Be Elevated as a National Priority within a Transdisciplinary Well-Rounded STEM Education,” we need more investment in R&D to understand the transdisciplinary STEM teaching and learning models that improve student outcomes. America’s formal education model remains largely reflective of the 1894 recommendations of the Committee of Ten: annually teach all students History, English, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, etc. This prevailing “layer cake” approach serves transdisciplinary education poorly. Even the Next Generation Science Standards upon which state and district science standards are largely based, focuses on developing… “an in-depth understanding of content and develop key skills…” All modern STEM-related challenges facing Generations Z, Alpha, and Beta require an entirely different brand of education – one of transdisciplinary inquiry.

USPTO Motivates Young Innovators and Entrepreneurs

The United States Patent and Trade Office (USPTO)’s National Summer Teacher Institute (NSTI) on Innovation, STEM, and Intellectual Property (IP) trains teachers to incorporate concepts of making, inventing, and intellectual property creation and protection into classroom instruction, with the goal to inspire and motivate young innovators and entrepreneurs. To date the program claims 22,000 hours of IP and invention education training of 444 teachers in 50 states – 110 of whom have inventions – now equipped to spread the power of invention education and IP to hundreds of thousands of learners across the country and the world. We should better understand the program components that enable this kind of transdisciplinary learning.

Recommendation 3. STEM teacher recruitment and training to support learning is a high-value target for investment in both the scaling of existent models as well as research and development on this essential frontier. 

Aligning to the STEM Ed Coalitions’ priority “Increase the Number of STEM Teachers in Our Nation’s Classrooms,” we need to deploy more education R&D to address America’s well-documented STEM teacher shortage. But the shortage is only half of the challenge we face. The other half is equipping teachers to authentically teach STEM, not merely a discipline underneath the STEM umbrella. Efforts such as the NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program and the UTeach model support the production of excellent teachers of mathematics and science, but not STEM overall. To teach in a convergent (transdisciplinary) fashion through collaborative community partnerships, on local/global complex issues is beyond the scope and capacity of traditional teacher preparatory models.

Example Programs

Two means for equipping educators to teach STEM are (1) in their pre-professional preparation, and (2) as in-service professional development for disciplinary instructors. Promising examples are flourishing.

  1. STEM Teaching Certificate. A few U.S. states and some national organizations have built STEM licenses and endorsements. Georgia State University’s STEM Certificate program trains teachers to bring a convergent STEM approach to whatever course, “[candidates] figure out how to work across their schools, with the arts, with connections to other subjects.”
  2. In-service STEM Externships. Teachers in industry externships discover workplace connections and durable skills important to build in classrooms. Numerous businesses (e.g., 3M), organizations (e.g. Aerospace/NASA), and states (e.g., Iowa’s NSF ITEST funded externships) conduct variations on the concept, with compelling results.

Recommendation 4. Expand student authentic career-linked or work-based learning experiences to all, earning credits while acquiring job skills, by improving coordination capacity, and crediting – especially earning core (graduation) credits.

Aligning to the STEM Ed Coalition’s priority to “Support Partnerships with Community Based STEM Organizations, Out of School Providers and Informal Learning Providers” education R&D needs to better understand career based learning models that work and deploy these evidence-based practices at scale.

Example Programs

With all 50 U.S. states aggressively pursuing work-based learning (WBL) policies and support, there is an opportunity to study and codify what states are learning to improve and iterate faster. According to the Education Commission of the States, 33 states have a definition for WBL, though variable. Nearly all states report WBL as a state strategy for their Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) profile. Twenty-eight states legislate funding to support WBL. Less than half of all states permit WBL to count for graduation credits. Of all states, Tennessee presents a particularly aggressive WBL profile worthy of scale/replication. 

Recommendation 5. Devote resources to research and development on coordination across components of the STEM education system – in school and out of school, educator preparation – at the local, state and national levels.

Aligning to the STEM Ed Coalition’s priority to “Take a Systemic Approach to Future STEM Education Interventions,” more R&D should be deployed to study ecosystem models to understand the components that lead to student outcomes

The STEM learning that takes place during the K-12 school day may or may not mesh well with the STEM learning that takes place at museum nights or at summer camp. In both instances, it may or may not align well with local, state, or national assessments. The preparation of educators is widely variable. The curricular content classroom-to-classroom and state-to-state varies. To drop novel grant-funded interventions into the mix is a random act of hope.

Example Programs

STEM Learning Ecosystems now number over 100 across the U.S., providing vertebral backbone to a national coordinative skeleton for STEM education. Formally designated by their membership in the STEM Learning Ecosystems Community of Practice supported by the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES), they each unite “…pre-K-16 schools; community-based organizations, such as after-school and summer programs; institutions of higher education; STEM-expert organizations, such as science centers, museums, corporations, intermediary and non-profit organizations and professional associations; businesses; funders; and informal experiences at home and in a variety of environments” to “…spark young people’s engagement, develop their knowledge, strengthen their persistence and nurture their sense of identity and belonging in STEM disciplines.” Every one of America’s 20,000 cities and towns ought to have a STEM Ecosystem. Just 19,900 to go.

Recommendation 6. Devote resources to research and development toward improved awareness/communication systems of Federal STEM education agencies.

Aligning to the STEM Ed Coalition’s priority toClarify and Define the Role of Federal Agencies and OSTP in Supporting STEM Education” we should utilize R&D and inspiration from other fields to ensure we are propagating knowledge and systems in ways that foster increased transparency and evidence-use.

Awareness is the weak link in the chain of federal STEM education outreach to consumers at local levels. Seventeen federal agencies engage in STEM education via 156 programs spanning pre-K-12 formal and informal, higher education, and adult education.

In 2018-19 a strong push was put forth by the OSTP and the Federal Coordination in STEM subcommittee (FC-STEM) to build STEM.gov or STEMeducation.gov in the spirit of AI.gov and Grants.gov. A one-stop clearinghouse through which Americans can explore and discover funding, programs, and expertise in STEM. To date, the closest analog is https://www.ed.gov/stem.

Example Programs

Discrete programs of various federal agencies have employed clever tactics for awareness and communication, as described in the 2022 Progress Report on the Implementation of the Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan. The AmeriCorp program, for example, partnered with Mathematica to build a web-based interactive SCALERtool useable by education professionals, local education agencies, state education agencies, nonprofits, state and local government agencies, universities and colleges, tribal nations, and others to request participants to address local challenges they have identified, including STEM. Similarly, the National Institute of Standards and Technology launched their NIST Educational STEM Resource registry (NEST-R) to provide wide access to NIST educational and workforce development content including STEM resource records. Can the concept be broadened to a grand unifying collective? 

Recommendation 7. Devote resources to research and development on supporting the training of STEM teachers and professionals for career coaching on a real-time, as-needed basis for all youth. 

Gen Z and Gen Alpha may end up in jobs like machine learning tech, molecular medical therapist, cryptocurrency auditor, big data distiller, climate change mitigator, or jetpack mechanic. From whom can they expect good career coaching? It is unrealistic to expect that their school counselors can keep up, with an average caseload of 385 students across all disciplines, their hands are full. STEM teachers, both the disciplinary and the integrated type, are best positioned to take on more responsibility for career coaching, with the help of counselors, administrators, librarians in fact it is an all-hands-on-deck challenge.

Example Programs

Meaningful Career Conversations is a program begun in Colorado now spreading to other states. It is a light training experience of four hours to equip educators and others with whom youth come into contact to conduct conversations that steer students toward reflection, exploration, and consideration of career pathways of interest. Trainings are based upon starters and prompts that get students talking about and reflecting on their strengths and interests, such as “What activities or places make you feel safe and valued? Why?” Not a silver bullet, but a model of distributed responsibility which, by engaging core teachers and other adults in career guidance, can help more students find their way toward a STEM career.

Recommendation 8. Devote resources to research and development on the expansion of local/global challenge-solution learning opportunities and how they  influence student self-efficacy and STEM career trajectories.

The standardization of a vision for STEM in classrooms across America will take time and resources. In the meantime, programs like MIT Solve can fast-track authentic learning experiences in school and after school. It is the ultimate student-centeredness to invite groups of youth to think big – identify challenges for which they are enthused and tap all imaginable resources in dreaming up solutions – to command their own learning.

Example Programs

Common in higher education are capstone projects, applied coursework, even entire college missions (e.g., Olin College) that center the student learning experience around local/global challenges and solutions. 

For citizens of all ages there are opportunities like Changemakers Challenges, and the “Reinvent the Toilet” competition of the Gates Foundation.

At the K-12 level, FIRST Lego League teams learn about robotics through humanitarian themes such as adaptive technologies for the disabled. The World Food Prize offers student group projects focused on global food security challenges. Of similar format is Future Cities, and Invention Convention. These well-evaluated programs are prime for expansion or replication.

Recommendation 9.  Devote resources to research and development of a digital platform readily accessible, easily navigable, and comprehensively thorough, for education-providers to harvest effective, vetted STEM programs from across the entire producer spectrum.

More than 50 different programs are named in this paper, each an exemplar, a mere snapshot of the STEM programs available to the pre-K-12 community in and out of school. Therein lies a challenge/opportunity uniquely defining this moment in American educational history compared to the 1958 and 2001 crises: an embarrassment of riches.

Example Programs

The number of databases and resource catalogs on STEM education programs available to educators is almost as overwhelming as the number of programs themselves. A few standouts help dampen the decibels (though none are perfect):  

  1. What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). Established in 2002 under the Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, the WWC does the hard work for educators of reviewing the research to make evidence-based recommendations about instruction. A priceless service. The trick is distillation. Their goal to digest and disseminate education research gets the material down to the level of curriculum developers, publishers, teacher-trainers, etc. Overwhelming though, for casual-shopping educators.  
  2. STEMworks Database. Born under Change The Equation in 2012, WestEd acquired STEMworks in 2017, a tool to sift through the noise using a rigorous rubric (Design Principles) to present sure-fire winning STEM programs to educators and organizations. Programs (kits, courses, software, lessons) submit applications for expert review. The result is a “Searchable honor-roll” of high-quality STEM. The hitch? Relatively few providers apply, especially not the emergent or experimental yet to acquire robust impact evidence.

Recommendation 10. Devote resources to the design and development of a catalog of STEM/workforce education “discoveries” funded by federal grant agencies (e.g., NSF’s I-Test, DR-K12, INCLUDES, CSforAll, etc.) to be used by STEM educators, developers and practitioners.

This recommendation relates to recommendation #9 except expressly regarding federal programs, and related to recommendation #6 except not a mere roster of offerings, but a vetted (and user-friendly) What Works Clearinghouse for all prior grants that yields empirical support for preK-12 STEM, across all agencies. What a treasure-trove of proven interventions and innovations across NSF, DE, DOE, DoD and on, mostly unknown to practitioners across the United States.

Each federal agency currently posts STEM opportunities at their websites (e.g., http://www.ed.gov/stem, http://dodstem.us/, http://www.nsf.gov/funding, http://www.nasa.gov/education, https://science.education.nih.gov/). These tools are valuable, but a desperate need remains for a singular STEM.gov style searchable landing page. 

There must be a way to view what worked for the thousands of R&D projects funded by these agencies. An online shopping mall for successful preK-12 STEM curricula, teaching approaches, equity practices, virtual platforms, etc. CoSTEM could create a “STEM Ideas that Work” landing page to ensure that emerging research insights are captured in systematic and accessible ways.

Example Programs

The Ideas That Work resource is an analog. Curated by the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education, it is a searchable database that includes all grants past and current exclusive to the NSF. Special educators and families can search, e.g., “behavioral challenge” yielding resources and toolkits, training modules, tip sheets, etc. 

Black and white photo of early 20th century science class

Recommended Actions of ALI and Other Stakeholders

While we hope to see many of these recommendations in the forthcoming Five Year STEM Plan, to actualize these recommendations, it will take multiple actors working together to advance the STEM education field.  

The Alliance for Learning Innovation has perhaps the most potent of tools among STEM/workforce stakeholders to affect change: communication.

ALI should host events, publish white papers, develop convenings and deploy mass media and other awareness and advocacy modes for rallying the august collective of member organizations toward amplifying America’s rural STEM equity opportunity, career coaching capacity, educator-employer partnership potential, convergence approach to learning, along with six other recommendations, doing more for preparing the future STEM workforce than any other action, including investment. 

Investment is a close second-most impactful action ALI can take. If all STEM investors – federal, state, corporate, and philanthropic, aligned around a finite array of pressing priorities served by a proven set of interventions (the very function of this report), the collective impact would transform systems. What it would take is an aggregator. ALI or a designee organization, functioning as an agent for businesses, philanthropies and other STEM investors, can make funding recommendations (or more ambitiously, pool investor funds) based on consensus goals of the STEM cooperative, acting to focus investments accordingly.               

Federal Agencies have made significant gains toward cooperative and complementary STEM education support through the sustenance of interagency working groups on Computational Literacy, Convergence, Strategic Partnerships, Transparency & Accountability, Inclusion in STEM, and Veterans and Military Spouses in STEM. As a result, improvements are being made in coordination and increased transparency about federal education R&D investments, especially between the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education. And yet, more needs to be done. 

Business, Industry, and Philanthropic Organizations have the ability to pilot or expand proven programs to national scale, as many examples herein attest. However, the impact of the investments of the private sector may fall short of systemic change due to a smorgasbord of pet programs chosen by each entity, leading to incremental rather than wholesale progress.

Business, industry, and philanthropic investors in STEM education should pool their resources around a finite array of proven programs for maximal, collective impact. A functional intermediary such as the Alliance for Learning Innovation could represent the interests of all non-government STEM funders by winnowing the horde of pre-K-12 STEM education programs to only those most effective at achieving consensus goals and priorities. The outcome might be a Consumer Reports-style top-rated performers menu that concentrates investments, amplifying impact. Like federal agencies, non-government funders should consider driving the advancement of transdisciplinary (convergent) STEM education, work-based or career-linked learning, the synchronization of in-school and out-of-school STEM education, educator career-coaching capacity, and the development of rural, diverse STEM workforce talent.     

States are best positioned to help local education/workforce organizations meet the human resource challenges and the material challenges inhibiting full production of future workers for high demand careers. It is state government that sets the policies that determine practices.

K-12 formal and informal education at the daily practical level bears the greatest responsibility to act on behalf of the future STEM workforce. Insofar as government and non-government funded programs support, and state policies empower, and preparatory trainings equip, educators should seize this moment in history to help American economic vitality and national security one student at a time.

Others at the table include post-secondary institutions, media outlets, faith communities, local trade and professional societies, social service providers, families, and citizens at-large. Each should contribute to the goal of producing a vibrant future workforce by advocating for education research and development policies at the state and federal levels and by partnering with formal and nonformal learning organizations to inspire tomorrow’s innovators in today’s classrooms. 

Students work in cell biology lab in Peckham Hall, 2012

Conclusion

American competitiveness through innovation is driven by leading-edge education systems. Legitimate concern for whether those systems can maintain their lead surfaces during periods of vulnerability whether eclipsed in the space race, or comparatively under-armored in military advancement, or surpassed in the advancement of information technology. To relinquish leadership in innovation is a threat to the U.S. economy and national security. In response to periodic threats to American innovation preeminence, bold investments in STEM education have produced waves of talent for securing the helm. 

This era is different. A myriad of fronts for innovation advancement – automation, machine learning, molecular medicine, energy transformation, cybersecurity – each harboring an existential challenge, heighten the imperative for action to an unprecedented level. And yet, the U.S. has never been more prepared to act. A wealth of pre-K-12 STEM programs and infrastructure stand in testament to legacy investments by the federal government and the private sector. This time, the challenge is to engage a broader swath of the population, especially those underserved and underrepresented in STEM programs of the past. And in tight budgetary times, broadened opportunities must utilize evidence-based solutions proven to work, whether they be in the realm of teacher preparation, equity and inclusion, early learning, informal education, community engagement, mathematics, coding, quantum physics, or all the above and more.

The best time to invest is when the pathway to success is clear. The tools and the know-how for producing tomorrow’s STEM workforce reside within pre-K-12 systems today. For public and private investors alike, there is an opportunity for amplification through collective impact. By collectively identifying high-impact solutions transparent in design and indisputable in effect, aligning resources for surgical precision rather than shotgun spray, and scaling known winners to all young Americans, the current challenge to U.S. innovation leadership will be met. Enough with moving the needle. It is time to pin the needle, shattering the gauge.  

A Comprehensive Strategy to Address Extreme Heat in Schools

Requiring children to attend school when classroom temperatures are high is unsafe and reduces learning; yet closing schools for extreme heat has wide-ranging consequences for learning, safety, food access, and social determinants of health. Children are vulnerable to heat, and schooling is compulsory in the U.S. Families rely on schools for food, childcare, and safety. In order to protect the health and well-being of the nation’s children, the federal government must facilitate efforts to collect the data required to drive extreme heat mitigation and adaptive capacity, invest in more resilient infrastructure, provide guidance on preparedness and response, and establish enforceable temperature thresholds. To do this, federal agencies can take action through three paths of mitigation: data collection and collaboration, set policy, and investments. 

Challenge and Opportunity

Schools are on the forefront of heat-related disasters, and the impact extends beyond the hot days. Extreme heat threatens students’ health and academic achievement and causes rippling effects across the social determinants of health in terms of food access, caregiver employment, and future employment/income for students. Coordinated preparation is necessary to protect the health and well-being of children during extreme heat events.

School Infrastructure Failure

Many schools do not have adequate infrastructure to remain cool during extreme heat events. At the start of the 2023–2024 academic year, schools in multiple locations were already experiencing failure due to extreme heat and were closing or struggling to hold classes in sweltering classrooms. The Center for Climate Integrity identified a 39% increase from 1970 to 2025 in the number of school districts that will have more than 32 school days over 80°F (their temperature cutoff for needing air-conditioning to function). The Government Accountability Office found in 2020 that 41% of public school districts urgently need upgrades to HVAC systems in at least half of their buildings, totaling 36,000 buildings nationally. The National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) most recent survey of the Condition of America’s Public School Facilities (2012–2013 school year) found 30% of school buildings did not have adequate air-conditioning. The numbers correlate with the population of disadvantaged students: 34% of schools where at least 75% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and only 25% of schools where less than 35% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch. NCES’s School Pulse Panel, implemented to document schools’ response to COVID-19, is expanding to include other topics relevant to federal, state, and local decision-makers. The survey includes heat-adjacent questions on indoor air quality, air filtration, and HVAC upgrades, but does not currently document schools’ ability to respond to extreme heat. Schools that are not able to maintain cool temperatures during extreme heat events directly affect child health and safety, and have an upstream impact on health.

Impact on Child Health and Safety

When temperatures rise on school days, local districts must decide whether to remain open or close. Both decisions can affect children’s health and safety. If schools remain open, students may be exposed to uncomfortable and unsustainable high temperatures in rooms with inadequate ventilation. Teachers in New York State reported extreme temperatures up to 94℉ inside the classroom and children passing out during September 2023 heatwaves. Spending time in the schoolyard may only compound the problem. Unshaded playgrounds and asphalt quickly heat up and may be hotter than surrounding areas, with surface temperatures that can cause burns. Similar to neighborhood tree cover, shade on school playgrounds is correlated with income (more income, more shade), leading to a higher risk of heat exposure for low-income and historically marginalized students. Children are vulnerable to heat and may have trouble cooling down when their body temperatures rise. Returning to hot classrooms will not provide them with an opportunity to cool down.

If schools close, children who are unable to access school food may go hungry. Procedures exist to ensure the continuation of school food service during unanticipated school closures, but it is not clear how food service would function if the building is overheated during extreme heat events. In New York City, an assessment of public cooling centers identified that nearly half were in senior centers and not open to children. If schools do not have sufficient heat mitigation and are closed for heat, children from low-income households, who are at higher risk for food insecurity and less likely to have air conditioning at home, may be left hot and hungry.

While some state and local education departments have developed plans for responding to extreme heat on school days, the guidance, topics, and level of detail varies across states. Further, while the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified children as an at-risk group during heat events, they do not offer specific information on how schools can prepare and respond. A comprehensive playbook that provides guidance on the many challenges schools may encounter during extreme heat, and how to keep children safe, would enhance schools’ ability to function. 

Impact on Learning and Social Determinants of Health

The cumulative impact on learning, income, and equity is large. When schools remain open, heat reduces student learning (a 1% reduction in learning for each 1℉ increase across the year). When schools close, children lose learning time. The nation experienced the rippling effects of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, when extended closures impacted the achievement gap, projected future earnings, and caregiver employment, particularly for women. Even five days of closure for snow days in a school year has been seen to reduce learning. The projected increase in the number of districts that experience more than 32 school days a year over 80 suggests the impact of heat on learning could be substantial, whether it is from school closure or from learning in overheated classrooms. 

The impact on learning disproportionately affects students in low-income districts, often correlated with race due to historic redlining, as these districts have fewer funds available for school improvement projects and are more likely to have school buildings that lack sufficient cooling mechanisms. These disproportionate impacts foster increasing academic and economic inequity between students in low- and high-income school districts.

Existing Response: Infrastructure

The federal government is aware of the infrastructure challenges and is funding green and gray infrastructure improvements through several programs. The Renew America’s Schools grants focus on funding infrastructure upgrades for K-12 schools. In the initial round of applications, need far exceeded available funds, with 236 Local Education Authorities submitting eligible requests totaling $1.62 billion. In response to the overwhelming need, the Department of Energy (DOE) more than doubled planned funding and awarded $178 million in grants. Through the American Rescue Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is providing technical assistance to help communities develop plans to develop cooling centers in schools. Through the Inflation Reduction Act, EPA is helping schools develop and implement Indoor Air Quality management plans, which include maintenance of acceptable temperatures, with an anticipated $32 million in grant funding over five years. Multiple public and private programs have supported projects to increase green space and tree cover on school grounds, including grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

These programs are substantial, but also substantially less than the demonstrated need. Embedding heat considerations into future school infrastructure projects and integrating explicit consideration of heat into existing projects would enable all of the activities supported through these grants to mitigate the impact of extreme heat concurrently. A coordinated effort could increase the impact of these funds. 

Existing Response: Temperature Standards

Though many states, school districts, or health departments maintain and enforce standards for minimum required temperatures in occupied buildings, relatively few have similar standards for maximum acceptable temperatures. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends indoor temperatures stay between 68℉ and 76℉ and is currently developing a national standard for protecting workers during extreme heat. Occupational standards for maximum indoor temperature exist in Oregon (80), Minnesota (77 to 86), and California (80 outdoors; indoors pending). As public schools are institutions where adults work and children, an at-risk group, are required to be present, a national standard on acceptable indoor temperatures should be developed to protect children’s health and learning. 

Plan of Action

Managing extreme heat in American public school systems requires urgent action. While education is primarily under the authority of the state governments, the mission of the federal government is to ensure educational excellence and equal access. Federal agencies can facilitate data collection and collaboration, set standards to maintain safety, provide guidelines for local education authorities to follow, and coordinate different actions at state level and act as a source of expertise for capacity building for state and local actors. Similar to the actions outlined in a recent memo on developing heat-resilient schools in California, the federal government should take preemptive action across the nation.

Collect Data and Collaborate. Federal agencies need to collaborate and collect data to better understand and drive mitigation efforts to prepare for extreme heat for schools. 

  1. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) should join NIHHIS as a partnering agency to collaborate on heat preparation and mitigation strategies specifically for schools. 
  2. The NCES should update a national inventory of school infrastructure to identify schools that will need upgrades or investments in infrastructure to mitigate heat based on climate prediction. 
  3. ED should collaborate with EPA and/or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to collect data about heat at indoor and outdoor school facilities so as to provide better guidance to schools and direct heat mitigation efforts (e.g., increasing shade or tree cover on playgrounds). Mechanisms for this could be through creating an optional reporting function of EPA’s School IAQ Assessment tool (see recommendation below), adding heat-related questions to NCES’s School Pulse Panel, or through NOAA heat-island mapping campaigns.
    • EPA should update its School IAQ Assessment and App to include heat-related information. This could include a checklist or questions related to extreme heat, including both before heat events (HVAC status, shade cover on school building and playground, plans for hot days, options for water/cooling for overheated students, and indicators of heat stress), and heat assessments on days at high temperatures (indoor temperature in classrooms, hallways, cafeteria, gym, and outdoor temperatures on playgrounds [air and surfaces], blacktop, and shaded areas). 
    • NCES should add heat-related questions to the School Pulse Panel survey to aid heat-mitigation efforts in the same way the survey was used for COVID-19 mitigation. There are existing questions related to indoor air quality, ventilation, and the state of HVAC systems. Similar questions should be added to collect data on indoor and outdoor temperatures in locations where students spend school time (classrooms, lunch room, playground) during hot months, use of building-wide or local air conditioning or fans to maintain temperature, and availability of cooling spaces if the whole building does not have air-conditioning.
  4. ED should collaborate with state and local education authorities to collect data on school closures and absences during heat events to identify places where heat affects students’ ability to participate due to extreme heat and the reasons that students are absent during extreme heat events. Data on absences should be used to proactively target places where heat is having a larger impact on access to education. 

Set Policy. In order to prepare for future extreme heat events, federal agencies can take the following actions to set policy to expand the adaptive capacity of schools to protect U.S. educational employees and students:

  1. Similar to required minimum indoor temperatures, OSHA should establish a standard that sets the maximum classroom indoor temperatures at which cooling action must be taken or classrooms must be closed. OSHA is already considering a heat standard for outdoor workers; OSHA can set standards for school employees that would also protect students learning in those conditions. 
  2. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should define school infrastructure as failing on school days above 80℉ outdoor temperature in schools without air conditioning or indoor temperature above 80℉ in classrooms. FEMA can then apply mitigation measures if the school is determined to have infrastructure failure, including providing funding for infrastructure upgrades.
  3. FEMA and other agencies that assess and predict hazard risk should explicitly consider schools’ capability to remain open and keep children safe during extreme heat events as part of their assessments. 
  4. ED and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should develop guidelines to protect students’ health, well-being, and learning during extreme heat events and include them in the Emergency Planning section of schoolsafety.gov guidance. This could include an updated and easily accessed, searchable, and centralized library of federal and state resources specifically tailored to heat stress in schools such as California’s EnvironScreen and US Climate Resilience Toolkit. This can expand the capacity of local and state actors and provide ongoing access to updates support. This also sets the stage for state governments to share resources and collaborate.
  5. NIHHIS should add resources for schools in a “For Schools” drop-down section of the Planning and Preparing page on HEAT.gov.
  6. USDA should develop a federal process to serve food in alternative locations when school buildings are overheated during extreme heat events, similar to New York State’s summer waiver allowing food service in alternate locations during heat events.

Invest in Schools. In order to prepare for and plan for future extreme heat events, EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), USDA, and the Department of Energy (DOE) can take the following actions to launch mitigation measures to improve the resilience of schools and alleviate the impact of heat on student and employee health:

  1. Existing projects focused on school upgrades should integrate consideration of heat mitigation into their programs.
    • The Renew America’s Schools Grants and EPA’s Indoor Air Quality project should ensure that infrastructure upgrades they support for K-12 schools will also meet the needs of increasing temperatures. These projects already contribute substantial funding to projects that could affect heat mitigation. Explicitly planning for and investing in heat mitigation as part of those upgrades could reduce the need for additional upgrades to address heat.
    • The CPSC should update their Public Playground Safety Handbook to include a more comprehensive overview of designing thermally comfortable playgrounds. The National Program for Playground Safety developed a good example of this for the Standards Council of Canada with specific details about designing thermally safe playgrounds. Programs supporting schoolyard redesign projects should follow these guidelines.
  2. Substantial funding needs to be allocated to invest in infrastructure, cooling technologies, retrofits, landscape, and other adaptive strategies to prepare for extreme heat. There needs to be investments in researching how much funding is needed and how to allocate that funding equitably. Data collection proposed above will help determine the scale of the need.

Conclusion

Extreme heat is an urgent problem for schools. Opportunities exist across the federal government to protect our nation’s future by protecting our children. Federal agencies can best support state and local schools through three paths of mitigation: collect data and collaborate, set policy, and invest in schools. 

This idea of merit originated from our Extreme Heat Ideas Challenge. Scientific and technical experts across disciplines worked with FAS to develop potential solutions in various realms: infrastructure and the built environment, workforce safety and development, public health, food security and resilience, emergency planning and response, and data indices. Review ideas to combat extreme heat here.

Frequently Asked Questions
Are there any state-level temperature standards in the works for schools?

Several examples of potential legislation exist at the state level in Mississippi (classrooms must be air-conditioned for schools to be accredited), Connecticut (schools with air conditioners must maintain temperatures below 78ºF), Washington (schools must be “reasonably free of… excessive heat”), and Hawaii (classrooms must be a “temperature acceptable for student learning”) and a bill is being considered in New York (cooling action must be taken at 82ºF; classrooms can’t be occupied above 88ºF).

Community School Approach Reaches High of 60%, Reports Latest Pulse Panel

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ August 2023 pulse panel, 60% of public schools were utilizing a “community school” or “wraparound services model” at the start of this school year—up from 45% last year. This survey builds on a trend of education policy leaders across the country increasing their focus on the place-based, whole child approach called community schools. Experts note no two community schools are the same, but they do build on the Science of Learning and Development to offer at least four common practices—student and family engagement; collaborative leadership; expanded, enriched learning opportunities, and integrated systems of support. These common community school practices or pillars have an expanding evidence base and growing consensus of support, which are well suited to meet the multifaceted needs of our students coming out of the pandemic. As we transition our education systems to a post pandemic world, policymakers should make community schools an increasing part of America’s future. 

Need for a Community School Approach

Recent headlines show that the effects of the pandemic are not going away even though federal-relief funds are. Young people are living with continued anxiety and depression, over 1 million continue to experience homelessness, learning loss remains a persistent issue, and students need more enrichment opportunities to stay on track to graduate. These impacts can be seen in rising chronic absenteeism rates, climbing reports of disruptive discipline incidents, increasing numbers of dropouts, and declining graduation rates. Finding a cohesive way to respond to all of these challenges is daunting. 

Expanding Evidence-Base for Community Schools 

Luckily, recent stories and evaluations show community schools are a promising way to respond to the negative educational impacts from COVID and broader systemic inequalities. First-hand accounts show community schools are providing mental health care, housing support, educational enrichment, and expanded learning opportunities to help students succeed. A national evaluation and a review of 143 studies indicate these stories are more than anecdotal, showing community schools can reduce chronic absenteeism, decrease suspensions, improve school climate, and improve graduation rates. Even more promising news is documented in a new book about the community schools movement, which details how extended implementation has resulted in increased enrollment, and sustained improvements in academic achievement. 

Growing Nationwide Support for Community Schools 

Given the positive impacts of community schools, it is unsurprising support for community schools is growing in different areas and at multiple levels. Urban cities (e.g., Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia,) and rural communities (e.g., Deer River, MN, Kern County, CA, Taos, NM, Quitman County, MS) have all launched or expanded their implementation of community schools since 2020. During the same time, red states and blue states—including Georgia, California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Vermont also increased funding or built capacity in their own versions of community schools. Even at the federal level, funding for the Full-Service Community School program doubled under President Trump and President Biden.

The Future of Community Schools 

With the momentum of money and focus behind community schools, expansion might seem inevitable, however, policymakers can do more. In September 2024, states and districts will be required by law to allocate the remainder of the almost $200 billion in COVID-relief funding they received to help address the disruptions to education caused by the pandemic. 

Investing any remaining relief funding in key community school infrastructure would be fiscally responsible and socially beneficial. This is because every dollar invested in community school coordinators can provide $7 in return, and the same investment in the common practices or pillars of community schools mentioned above, can return $15 of social and economic value

More importantly, policymakers should set up systems and structures to make new or keep current investments in community schools going after ARP funds run out. For instance, policymakers can: 

A review of influential moments in American education history shows continued efforts to help all students access high-quality learning opportunities (e.g., offering reduced-priced meals, special education services, and subsidies for low-income schools.) Ensuring all students have access to community schools can continue this trend and mark the next milestone for U.S. education.


The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.

The Missing Data for Systemic Improvements to U.S. Public School Facilities

Peter Drucker famously said, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” Data on facilities helps public schools to make equitable decisions, prevent environmental health risks, ensure regular maintenance, and conduct long-term planning. Publicly available data increases transparency and accountability, resulting in more informed decision making and quality analysis. Across the U.S., public schools lack the resources to track their facilities and operations, resulting in missed opportunities to ensure equitable access to high quality learning environments. As public schools face increasing challenges to infrastructure, such as climate change, this data gap becomes more pronounced.

Why do we need data on school facilities?

School facilities affect student health and learning. The conditions of a school building directly impact the health and learning outcomes of students. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the importance of indoor air quality into the public consciousness. Many other chronic diseases are exacerbated by inadequate facilities, causing absenteeism and learning loss. From asthma to obesity to lead poisoning, the condition of the places where children spend their time impacts their health, wellbeing, and ability to learn. Better data on the physical environment helps us understand the conditions that hinder student learning

School buildings are a source of emissions and environmental impacts. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that schools annually spend $8 billion on energy, and emit an estimated 72 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. While the energy use intensity of school buildings is not itself that high when compared with other sectors, there are interesting trends such as education being the largest consumer of natural gas. The public school fleet is the largest mass transit system in the U.S. As of 2023 only 1-2% of the countries estimated nearly 500,000 buses are electric

Data provides accountability for public investment. After highways, elementary and secondary education infrastructure is the leading public capital outlay expenditure nationwide (2021 Census). Most funds to maintain school facilities come from local and state tax sources. Considering the sizable taxpayer investment, relatively little is known about the condition of these facilities. Some state governments have no school facilities staff or funding to help manage or improve school facilities. The 2021 State of Our Schools Report, the leading resource on school facilities data, uses fiscal data to highlight the issues in school facilities. This report found that there is a $85 billion annual school facilities infrastructure funding gap, meaning that, according to industry standards for both capital investment and maintenance, schools are funded $85 billion less than what is required for upkeep. Consistent with these findings, the U.S. Government Accountability Office conducted research on school building common facilities issues and found that, in 2020, 50% of districts needed to replace or update multiple essential building systems such as HVAC or plumbing. 

What data do we need?

Despite the clear connections between students’ health, learning, and the condition of school buildings, there are no standardized national data sets that assist school leaders and policy makers in making informed and strategic decisions to systematically improve facilities to support health and learning. 

Some examples of data points school facilities advocates want more of include:

Getting strategic and accessible with facilities data

Gathering this type of data represents a significant challenge for schools that are already overburdened and lack the administrative support for facilities maintenance and operations. By supporting the best available facilities research methods, facilities conditions standards, and dedicating resources to long term planning, we ensure that data collection is undertaken equitably. Some strategies that bear these challenges in mind are:

Incorporate facilities into existing data collection and increase data linkages in integrated and high quality data centers like National Center for Education Statistics. School leaders should provide key facilities metrics through the same mechanisms by which they report other education statistics. Creating data linkages allow users to make connections using existing data.    

Building capacity ensures that there are staff and support systems in place to effectively gather and process school facilities data. There are more federal funds than ever before offered for building the capacity of schools to improve facilities conditions. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education recently launched the Supporting America’s School Infrastructure grant program, aimed at developing the ability of state departments of education to address facilities matters.    

Research how school facilities are connected to environmental justice to better understand how resources could be most equitably distributed. Ten Strands and UndauntedK12 are piloting a framework which looks at pollution burden indicators and school adoption of environmental and climate action. We can support policies and fund research that looks at this intersection and makes these connections more transparent.

The connection between school facilities and student health and learning outcomes is clear. What we need now are the resources to effectively collect more data on school facilities that can be used by policy makers and school leaders to plan, improve learning conditions, and provide accountability to the public. 


The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.

Turning Community Colleges into Engines of Economic Mobility and Dynamism

Community colleges should be drivers of economic mobility, employment, and dynamism in local communities. Unlike four-year institutions, many of which are highly selective and pose significant barriers to entry, two-year colleges are intended to serve people from a wide range of life circumstances. In theory, they are highly egalitarian institutions that enable underserved individuals to access learning, jobs, and opportunities that would otherwise not be available to them.

However, community colleges are asked to do a lot of things with relatively little funding: they serve individuals ranging from highly gifted high school students to prospective transfers to four-year universities to people earning skilled trades certificates. This spreads schools’ attention broadly and is especially problematic given the wide range of non-academic challenges that many of their low-income students face, such as raising dependents and lack of access to reliable transportation. Troublingly, many community college degrees do not result in an economic return on investment (ROI) for their students, and many students will not recoup their investment within five years of completing a community college credential.

To address these issues, policymakers should reform community colleges in two essential ways. First, community colleges should align curricula toward fields with high wages and strong employer demand while increasing the amount of work-based learning. This shift would provide more job-ready graduates and improve student salaries and employment rates, thereby increasing student ROI. Second, the federal government should provide greater financial assistance in the form of Pell Grants and funding for wraparound services such as transportation vouchers and textbooks, allowing more students to access high-quality community college programs and graduate on time. These are interventions with a track record of proven success but require greater funding and support capacity to scale up at a national level.

Challenge and Opportunity

Challenge 1: Community colleges serve a wide range of students, including working parents seeking a better job, students who intend to transfer to four-year universities, and high school students taking dual enrollment classes.

There is no such thing as a typical community college student. As part of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the Aspen Institute collected demographic and outcomes data for its top 150 community colleges. Within this group, over 30% of students are “nontraditional” students over the age of 25, and 45% are minorities. Moreover, 63% of community college students attend part-time, which poses significant challenges in terms of scheduling and momentum. This severely impacts retention, graduation, and transfer rates. By contrast, just 11% of students at four-year flagship institutions are enrolled part-time. Community colleges must juggle these competing priorities and must do so in the absence of clear guidelines and insufficient resources.

Challenge 2: Underprivileged students tend to struggle the most given their financial constraints and insufficient access to wraparound services. At the same time, community colleges are already starved for resources and may not have the capacity to provide those critical services to these students.

Community college students are more likely than their four-year counterparts to come from less wealthy backgrounds. As of 2016, 16% of students in four-year colleges come from impoverished families, with another 17% coming from families near poverty. By contrast, some 23% of dependent community college students and 47% of independent students come from families with less than $20,000 of annual income. Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of community college students work, with roughly one-third working full-time.

Figure 1. Family income backgrounds of community college students.
IncomeOverallDependentIndependent
< $20,00037%23%47%
$20,000-49,99930%28%31%
$50,000 and up33%49%22%

Community colleges will be hard-pressed to cover students’ financial shortfalls from their own budgets. On average, community colleges receive $8,700 per full-time equivalent student versus $17,500 per student for four-year colleges (this overstates funding per enrolled student, because more community college students are enrolled part-time). Moreover, over half of community college funding comes from local and state sources. As a result, schools with the highest proportion of low-income students are more likely to have lower funding.

Challenge 3: The United States needs more nurses and allied healthcare workers, IT and cyber professionals, and skilled tradespeople, but the recruiting pipeline and training pathway for these individuals is often understaffed, highly fragmented, and hyperlocal.

Many industries with high-paying wages have experienced or will soon experience major talent shortages in the next decade. For instance, by 2030 the United States will need another 275,000 registered nurses, which, at the minimum, requires an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) to sit for the NCLEX entrance exam. The country needs another 350,000 cybersecurity professionals, especially in the federal workforce, where 50% of the workforce is over the age of 50 and approaching retirement age. Finally, and certainly not least, the distributed renewable energy grid will not build itself: 30% of union electricians are between the ages of 50 and 70, and we will need more solar installers, wind technicians, and other skilled trades specialists to enable the green transition.

However, these issues are not easily solved by digitally native solutions rolled out at a national level. Instead, these need to be tackled at a local level. For instance, access to clinical space can only happen through hospitals, while skill development for electricians, installers, and technicians primarily occurs through high school and community college CTE classes and industry-led apprenticeships, all of which require a substantial in-person component. Thus, workforce training to fill shortages will have to be similarly local in nature.

Challenge 4: The value of the two-year associate’s degree and certificates is highly variable and depends on the type of degree or certificate earned.

The Burning Glass Institute studied the career histories of nearly 5 million individuals who graduated between 2010 and 2020 and built a rich dataset that tied salary information to LinkedIn profiles. They then assessed “degree optional” roles (jobs where 50% to 80% of individuals held a degree) and found that a four-year degree provided a 15% wage premium, which was largely driven by the job flexibility provided by the bachelor’s degree. By comparison, they found no such premium for two-year associate’s degrees.

However, these averages hide the economic variance provided by individual degrees. Third Way investigated the economic payback period for graduates of different degree programs, which they defined as the pay increase over the median high school graduate divided by the net tuition cost. Highly technical engineering, healthcare, and computer science associate’s degrees provided exceptional payback periods, with more than 90% recouping their investment in less than five years.

Figure 2. Associate’s degree payback period by select fields of study.
Highest Proportion of Associate’s Degree Programs That Allow Graduate to Recoup Their Educational Investment in Five Years Or Less
Field of StudyTotal # of GradsTotal ProgramsFive Years Or Less to Recoup Educational Investment – # of GradsFive Years Or Less to Recoup Educational Investment – # of Programs% of Programs
Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research and Clinical Nursing56,70187556,64087299.70%
Electromechanical Instrumentation and Maintenance Technologies/Technicians1,861651,8496498.50%
Allied Health Diagnostic, Intervention, and Treatment Professions23,68653422,50352097.40%
Electrical Engineering Technologies/Technicians1,702721,6757097.20%
Industrial Production Technologies/Technicians1,856511,8314996.10%
Drafting/Design Engineering Technologies/Technicians1,412711,3736895.80%
Practical Nursing, Vocational Nursing and Nursing Assistants1,293291,2212793.10%
Dental Support Services and Allied Professions7,7052366,87721992.80%
Computer Programming1,052479804391.50%
Clinical/Medical Laboratory Science/Research and Allied Professions1,943881,5218090.90%

Adapted from Third Way Institute

By contrast, other associate’s degrees saw no economic ROI. Some of these degrees, such as general humanities and culinary arts, are unsurprising. However, other fields, such as biological and physical sciences, for which half of students had no ROI, might have had stronger ROIs as bachelor’s degrees.

Figure 3. Associate’s degrees with a high proportion of programs with no ROI.
Highest Proportion of Associate’s Degree Programs with No Economic ROI
Field of StudyTotal # of GradsTotal ProgramsNO ROI – # of GradsNO ROI – # of Programs% of Programs
Human Development, Family Studies, and Related Services.2,071971,6798082.50%
Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Levels and Methods.3,9011393,27310978.40%
Audiovisual Communications Technologies/Technicians.1,304311,1091961.30%
Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities.67,47777931,15245458.30%
Design and Applied Arts.4,0591101,6655449.10%
Biological and Physical Sciences.1,782408071947.50%
Culinary Arts and Related Services.2,826602,2807043.70%
Business Operations Support and Assistant Services.3,4251431,3545941.30%
Hospitality Administration/Management.1,189504891938.00%
Mental and Social Health Services and Allied Professions.1,529635202133.30%

Adapted from Third Way Institute

Similarly, certificate programs have wildly varying ROIs. Nursing and diagnostic and skilled trades generally show a strong ROI, with more than 85% of students recouping their investment within five years. On the other hand, cosmetology, culinary arts, and administrative services are highly likely to receive no ROI, indicative of the low pay in the roles that certificate earners take upon completion of their program.

Figure 4. Certificate programs with high ROI (top) and no ROI (bottom).
Highest Proportion of Certificate Programs That Allow Graduates to Recoup Their Educational Investment in Five Years Or Less
Field of StudyTotal # of GradsTotal ProgramsFive Years Or Less to Recoup Educational Investment – # of GradsFive Years Or Less to Recoup Educational Investment – # of Programs% of Programs
Transportation and Materials Moving, Other2,01932,0193100.00%
Heavy/Industrial Equipment Maintenance Technologies1,867471,8554697.90%
Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research and Clinical Nursing1,874371,8413594.60%
Criminal Justice and Corrections3,7322136,39319290.10%
Allied Health Diagnostic, Intervention, and Treatment Professions7,8781123,18210291.10%
Practical Nursing, Vocational Nursing and Nursing Assistants32,01655228,18549689.90%
Ground Transportation7,891827,6437389.00%
Electrical and Power Transmission Installers4,603944,8969185.00%
Precision Metal Working16,46725213,26921284.10%
Environmental Control Technologies/Technicians4,673373,9333183.80%
Highest Proportion of Certificate Programs With No Economic ROI
Field of StudyTotal # of GradsTotal ProgramsNO ROI – # of GradsNO ROI – # of Programs% of Programs
Cosmetology and Related Personal Grooming Services87,34580785,08278997.80%
Somatic Bodywork and Related Therapeutic Services13,89517613,41516593.80%
Audiovisual Communications Technologies/Technicians1,32761,202583.30%
Veterinary/Animal Health Technologies/Technicians1,810211,7151781.00%
English Language and Literature, General1,82791,222777.80%
Culinary Arts and Related Services3,188542,3063972.20%
Business Operations Support and Assistant Services2,566602,0804270.00%
Allied Health and Medical Assisting Services69,81541446,75521852.70%
Health and Medical Administrative Services24,00928914,66413747.40%
Dental Support Services and Allied Professions18,93920311,7689647.30%

Adapted from Source: Third Way Institute

Together, these studies show that associate’s degree programs and certificates with less-defined career pathways are at risk of value erosion. This may be due in part to real differences in the skills taught in a two-year degree or certificate versus a four-year program. However, it is also clear that highly technical associate’s degrees and certificates designed to meet employer-defined needs have better economic ROIs, suggesting that there is less value erosion in roles with well-defined pathways.

Plan of Action

To address these issues, policymakers, community college leaders, employers, and philanthropic stakeholders should work together to implement five general reforms:

  1. Reorient community college offerings toward technical associate’s degrees and certificates that have been shown to have a strong, locally proven ROI for students while pruning programs that do not have compelling outcomes. The federal government should allocate funding to programs that have compelling five-year repayment rates and fill jobs that have high and persistent skills shortages. In addition, the Department of Education can write a “Dear Colleague Letter” that focuses on program ROI and suggest that Congress pass laws strengthening ROI requirements for federal funding
  2. Community colleges and local employers should partner to deliver more job training at scale, including apprenticeships and skills-based part-time work. Many of these programs, such as Project Quest, have been established for years, and community colleges can and should play a bigger role in building a student pipeline and delivering in-classroom training that leads to a high-quality credential. In addition, under the Inflation Reduction Act, local employers can receive tax breaks for clean energy projects that use registered apprenticeships. These apprenticeships, which supplement on-the-job training with classroom instruction and are tailored to employer needs, can be provided by community colleges
  3. Increase Pell Grant maximums to improve degree affordability and access. For the upcoming 2023–2024 school year, the maximum could be raised by $500, in line with the 2024 President’s Budget. Congress should enact provisions in the president’s budget that would provide $500 million in funding for community college programs that lead to high-paying jobs and $100 million for workforce training, both of which would strengthen post completion outcomes. In addition, Congress should pass legislation that makes Pell Grants nontaxable, which would enable students to use funding on living expenses.
  4. Develop and fund high-ROI wraparound solutions that have been shown to improve student outcomes, such as those developed by the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). These include career guidance, textbook assistance, and transportation vouchers, among others. The Department of Education should also allow community colleges to spend funding (for example, some of the increases proposed in the president’s budget) on supports that are not already covered by existing entitlement programs. In addition, state and local governments can earmark special taxes and work closely with philanthropic funders to experiment with and deploy wrap     around solutions, helping policymakers further assess the most cost-effective interventions. 
  5. Create comprehensive data tracking mechanisms that track data at state and local levels to evaluate student outcomes and relentlessly funnel public, private, and philanthropic capital toward interventions and degree programs that are shown to result in strong outcomes. In particular, the recommendations in the bipartisan College Transparency Act are a good start given that they would tie Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data together.

Recommendation 1. Community colleges should reorient their offerings toward degrees that provide strong employment outcomes and student ROI (e.g., associate’s degrees in nursing and maintenance and installer certificates). 

The data is unambiguous: Some programs deliver strong outcomes while others are drains of students’ and taxpayers’ money. Community colleges can better serve students by focusing more time and resources on the programs that deliver strong ROIs within their local economic contexts. As Figures 2–     4 show, these programs skew heavily toward nursing and allied health, engineering and computer science, and skilled trades roles. These also dovetail with major labor shortages, suggesting that community colleges can play a significant role in matching labor supply with demand.

This premise sounds deceptively simple but requires a meaningful reimagination of the role that community colleges play. By asking community colleges to refocus toward highly technical associate’s degrees and certificates, they would end up eschewing other aspects of the higher education landscape. In this view, community colleges would de-emphasize the production of liberal arts associate’s degrees. While they would continue to teach core science and humanities courses, the structure and content would be primarily geared toward equipping students with the critical thinking and foundational skills required to excel in higher-level technical courses. Community colleges would thus further increase their role in providing vocational training.     

Refocusing community colleges on certain degrees would allow institutions to devote their limited resources to helping students navigate a smaller set of pathways. While it is certainly true that community colleges could improve liberal arts associate’s degree ROIs by helping students transfer to four-year universities, a greater emphasis on vocational degree production would help two-year colleges focus on their core competitive advantage in the higher education market. In the long run, greater focus would reduce administrative burden while helping professors, guidance counselors, and financial aid officers develop expertise in high-demand training and career pathways. In addition, a narrower focus on high-ROI degrees improves the effectiveness of public and philanthropic spending, making large-scale interventions more feasible from political and financial perspectives.

Recommendation 2. At the local level, community colleges should partner with employers to deliver job-specific training at scale (for example, apprenticeships or skills-based part-time work paired with associate’s degrees), helping economies match labor supply and demand while providing students with pay and relevant work experience.

Although increased tuition assistance would significantly improve financial access for many community college students, the reality is that programs such as the Pell Grant, while highly effective, still leave students with major financial gaps. As a result, many community college students end up working: as Figure 1 shows, 47% of independent community college students come from incomes of less than $20,000. 

A practical approach would be to ask how we might optimize the value of hours worked rather than asking how we might avoid hours worked at all. Many community college students are employed in retail and other frontline roles: in fact, 23% of students in the Washington state dataset worked in retail at the start of their academic career, while another 19% worked in accommodation and food service. These are entry-level roles that pay low salaries, provide poor benefits, and are unlikely to teach transferable skills in high-paying professions. 

A better way to provide wages as well as professionally transferable skills would be to increase funding for work-based training programs, including apprenticeships and part-time roles, that are directly related to the student’s course of study. The Department of Labor should fund a large increase in work-based training programs that provide the following characteristics:

Research has started to highlight the long-term benefits of well-designed work-based learning programs focused on high-paying jobs. San Antonio-based Project Quest works with individuals in healthcare, IT, and the skilled trades to provide low-income adults with credentials and employment pathways (sometimes through community colleges but also with trade schools and four-year universities providing certificates). In addition to training, Project Quest provides comprehensive wraparound support for its participants, including financial assistance for tuition, transportation, and books, as well as remedial instruction and career counseling.

In 2019, Project Quest published the results of its nine-year longitudinal study that included a randomized controlled trial of 410 adults, 88% of whom were female, enrolled in healthcare programs. Thus, replicability for other industries may prove challenging. Nonetheless, the study showed highly positive and statistically long-term earnings impacts for its participants, results that have not been easily replicated elsewhere.

Properly designed standalone apprenticeships have the potential to deliver large and positive impacts. For example, the Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) has long had an apprenticeship program in Kentucky to develop high-quality automotive manufacturing talent for skilled trades roles, which blends technical training for automotive manufacturing, skills that can be transferred to any industrial setting, and soft skills education. Participants complete an apprenticeship and finish with an associate’s degree in industrial maintenance technology. Within five years of graduation, FAME graduates had average incomes of almost $100,000.     

The Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Act, and CHIPS Act have made it clear that reinvesting in America’s industrial base is a key policy priority. At the same time, the private sector has identified major skill shortages in the skilled trades as well as healthcare and IT. Community college administrators can lead the effort to create work-based training solutions for these key roles and coordinate the efforts of various stakeholders, including the Departments of Education and Labor, state governments, and philanthropic organizations seeking to fund high-quality comprehensive solutions such as the ones developed by Project Quest. In doing so, community college leaders can move to the vanguard of outcomes-driven, ROI-based higher education.

Recommendation 3. The federal government should increase Pell Grant funding and ensure that more students receive funds for which they are eligible.

Pell Grants are an essential component of college funding for many low-income college students, without which higher education would be unaffordable. For the 2023–2024 school year, the Pell Grant maximum is $7,395, and on average students receive around $4,250. By contrast, the average tuition at a community college is just under $4,000, with the total cost of attendance at around $13,500. Thus, the average Pell Grant would cover all of tuition but just one-third of the total cost of attendance, assuming that the student was enrolled full-time. Nonetheless, Pell Grants are highly effective tools: the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond conducted a pilot study of 9,000 students and found that 64% of Pell recipients had graduated, transferred, or persisted in their program within 200% of the normal completion time, as opposed to 51% of non-Pell recipients. 

Increasing Pell Grant awards will have two important effects. First, additional Pell Grant assistance reduces the out-of-pocket tuition burden, in turn increasing financial capacity for critical expenditures such as living expenses, textbooks, and transportation. Second, students who receive Pell Grant funding in excess of the tuition maximum could directly apply funds to those expenditures. However, under current IRS code, Pell Grant funding that is applied to living expenses is taxable. Congress should pass legislation that makes Pell Grants nontaxable in order to avoid penalizing students who use funds on critical expenses that might otherwise go unfilled or would require funding from an outside organization. 

President Biden’s 2024 budget, which proposes a $500 increase in the maximum Pell Grant, is an excellent baseline for increasing access to high-quality community college programs. In all, this is estimated to cost $750 million in 2024 (including four-year college students), with a more ambitious pathway to doubling the grant by 2029. Moreover, the president’s budget calls for $500 million to start a discretionary fund that provides free two-year associate’s degree programs for high-quality degrees. These proposals have shown progress at the state level: for instance, Tennessee, a Republican-led state, offers free community      or technical college to every high school graduate. Furthermore, tying funding to programs with strong graduation and salary outcomes ensures that funding flows to high-quality programs, improving student ROI and increasing its appeal to taxpayers.

Policymakers should also do more to ensure that students take advantage of funds they are eligible to receive. In 2018, the Wheelhouse Center for Community College Leadership and Research examined data from nearly 320,000 students in California. Over just one semester, they found that students failed to claim $130 million of Pell Grants they were eligible for. Sometimes, students simply forget to apply, but in other cases, financial aid offices put artificial obstacles in the way: half of financial aid officers report asking for additional verification beyond the student list required by the Department of Education. Community colleges should be given more resources to ensure that eligible students apply for grant funding, but financial aid offices can also help by reducing the administrative burden on students and themselves.

Recommendation 4. In addition to expanding Pell Grant uptake, the public sector should fund and distribute wraparound services for community college students focused on high-impact practices, including first-year experiences, guidance counseling and career support, and ancillary benefits, such as textbook vouchers and transportation passes. 

In 2014, the Center for Community College Student Engagement assessed 12 community colleges to evaluate three essential outcomes: passing a developmental course in the first year, passing a gatekeeper course in the first year, and persistence in the degree program. They then pinpointed a set of practices that were meaningfully more likely to positively impact one or more of the target outcomes.

Figure 6. High-impact community college practices.
The High-Impact Practices: The 13 high-impact practices, as well as the structured group learning experiences classification, are described below.
Orientation may be a single event or an extended structured
experience to familiarize students with one or more of the following: college resources, services, policies, and organizations; building a network of support; and developing an academic plan and individual goals.
Supplemental instruction typically involves a regularly scheduled, supplemental class for a portion of students enrolled in a larger course section. Supplemental instruction may be taught by the class instructor or a trained assistant, often a former student who was successful in the class.Accelerated courses or fast-track programs in developmental education are learning experiences designed to help students move more quickly through developmental coursework in order to move on to college-level work.
A first-year experience or freshman seminar is a course or a combination of in-class and out-of-class activities offered to students during their first term or first year at college.Tutoring is academic assistance that is provided outside of class, either in a one-on-one setting, in a group setting, or via technology.Experiential (hands-on) learning—such as internships, co-op experience, apprenticeships, field experience, clinical assignments, and community-based projects—immerses students in content, and it encourages them to make connections and forge relationships.
A learning community involves two or more linked courses that a group of students take together.Academic goal setting and planning creates a clear path to help students reach their educational goals. Defining this path is the work of academic goal setting and planning.A student success course is a course specifically designed to teach skills and strategies to help students succeed in college (e.g., time management, study skills, and test-taking skills).

One successful intervention that bundles together many of these practices is the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), developed in the City University of New York (CUNY) and eventually expanded to three Ohio community colleges. The ASAP study, a randomized  control trial of 896 students at CUNY and 1,501 students in Ohio, provided tuition assistance and wraparound supports such as tutoring, career services, and textbook vouchers.      

The program delivered outstanding results: 55% of CUNY students graduated with a two-year or four-year degree versus 44% of the control group. The Ohio results were even more compelling, with the ASAP program improving two-year graduation rates by 15.6% and four-year registrations by 5.7% at a 0.01 significance level.

To scale these programs, the federal government should allow grants to be used for wraparound supports with strong research-based impacts, potentially drawing from (or in addition to) the $500 million community college discretionary fund in the president’s budget. Ideally, this would be done via competitive applications with an emphasis on programs that target disadvantaged communities and focus on high-quality degree programs. Moreover, this could be set up via matching funds that incentivize state and local governments as well as philanthropic players to play a larger role in creating wraparound supports and administrative structures that would allow community colleges to better provide these services in the long term. 

Recommendation 5. Federal, state, and local policymakers, working with large grant-writing foundations, should focus funding on interventions proven to result in higher graduation, transfer, and employment rates. As a first step, Congress should pass laws mandating the creation of datasets that merge educational and earnings data, which will help decision-makers and funders link dollars to outcomes.

Despite the success of programs such as ASAP and Project Quest, there is still a dearth of high-quality studies on comprehensive interventions. This is partly because there are relatively few such programs to begin with. Nonetheless, early results seem promising. The question is, how can we ensure that programs are properly measured in order to enable further public, private, and nonprofit financing?

Unlike ASAP and Project Quest, most programs do not rigorously track data over a long period. For instance, the American Association of Community Colleges provides a repository of data on community college apprenticeships, broken out at an aggregate level as well as by school partner. However, a closer look shows that the public-facing dataset is missing rudimentary information on the number of apprentices who complete their programs, what types of programs have a high rate of completers versus non completers, and employment outcomes, let alone richer datasets that include background demographic information, longitudinal earnings tracking, and other pieces of information essential to constructing statistically rigorous studies of student ROI.

Sample output of community college apprenticeship data, taken from Los Angeles Community College.

While there may be more privately held data in their database, the paucity of available public information is indicative of the state of data tracking for community colleges and work-based training programs. In general, institutions are not sufficiently funded to continue data tracking beyond completion or departure, leaving enormous gaps.     

One way to get around this issue is to require more rigorous data collection and longitudinal tracking, leveraging existing administrative data where possible. Fortunately, there is already a bill on the floor, called the College Transparency Act, which includes provisions requiring the Education Department to match student-level data with IRS tax data to measure post completion employment rates as well as mean and median earnings by institution, program of study, and credential level. Congress should pass the act, which enjoys bipartisan support. Passing the College Transparency Act would create the much-needed foundation to rigorously compare ROI and enable greater accountability for community colleges and higher ed writ large.

Conclusion

Designed correctly, community colleges can be fonts of economic opportunity, especially for individuals from underserved backgrounds whose primary goal is to enter into a well-paying role upon program completion. By collecting high-quality data, focusing on degrees with strong outcomes, providing quality work-based training, and funding wraparound supports and tuition assistance, community colleges can be much stronger, more effective engines for students and local communities. While these reforms will take time and energy from public policymakers, community college leaders, and employers, they have the potential to deliver compelling outcomes and are worth the investment.

Frequently Asked Questions
What are some possible consequences of refocusing community colleges on fewer degrees and more career-oriented certificates?

Certain constituents would be negatively impacted: for example, high school dual enrollment students would have fewer options for advanced course offerings, and students who want a physics, biology, economics, or similar degree would need to choose a four-year university. On the other hand, this is likely a healthy outcome. Academically gifted high school students could take AP courses in person at their high school or virtually, while liberal arts students would end up at four-year institutions where there is an appropriate amount of time to master the subject matter and the degree ROI is clearer.

What wraparound supports were included in the Ohio ASAP intervention? What was its cost efficacy?

The Ohio ASAP program included the following elements:



  • Tutoring: Students were required to attend tutoring if they were taking developmental (remedial) courses, on academic probation, or identified as struggling by a faculty member or adviser.

  • Career services: Students were required to meet with campus career services staff or participate in an approved career services event once per semester.

  • Tuition waiver: A tuition waiver covered any gap between financial aid and college tuition and fees.
    Monthly incentive: Students were offered a monthly incentive in the form of a $50 gas/grocery gift card, contingent on participation in program services.

  • Textbook voucher: A voucher covered textbook costs.

  • Course enrollment: Blocked courses and consolidated schedules held seats for program students in specific sections of courses during the first year.

  • First-year seminar: New students were required to take a first-year seminar (or “success course”) covering topics such as study skills and note-taking.

  • Full-time enrollment: Students were required to attend college full-time during the fall and spring semesters and were encouraged to enroll in summer classes.


Although the program cost an additional $5,500 in direct costs per student (and a further $2,500 because students took more courses and degrees), the total cost per degree attained decreased because the program had a significant positive impact on graduation rates. Degree attainment is an essential key performance indicator because there are large differences in economic ROI for graduates and nongraduates, especially at community colleges.


Greater experimentation with publicly funded wraparounds, including greater uptake of entitlements for which students might be eligible, will help policymakers identify the most impactful components of the ASAP intervention. Over time, this will reduce direct costs while continuing to improve the cost per degree attained.

What wraparound supports were provided by the Project Quest intervention?

Project Quest included the following wraparound supports:



  • Financial assistance to cover tuition and fees for classes, books, transportation, uniforms, licensing exams, and tutoring.

  • Remedial instruction in math and reading to help individuals pass placement tests.

  • Counseling to address personal and academic concerns and provide motivation and emotional support.

  • Referrals to outside agencies for assistance with utility bills, childcare, food, and other services as well as direct financial assistance with other supports on an as-needed basis.

  • Weekly meetings that focused on life skills, including time management, study skills, critical thinking, and conflict resolution.

  • Job placement assistance, including help with writing résumés and interviewing, as well as referrals to employers that are hiring.

What results did FAME achieve? How does it compare to Project Question and other more fulsome interventions?

A study by Brookings and Opportunity America of graduates between 2010 and 2017 showed dramatic increases in five-year post completion wages (almost $100,000 for FAME graduates versus slightly over $50,000 for non-FAME participants). Much of the earnings impact can be attributed to differences in graduation rates: 80% of FAME participants graduate, compared to 30% elsewhere. It should be noted that FAME was not a randomized control trial (unlike Project Quest) but rather a match-paired study with a FAME participant and a “similar” individual, and data was only available for 24 of the 143 FAME participants at the five-year postgraduation mark. Nonetheless, research clearly shows that corporations, workforce development agencies, and community colleges can pair the best of Project Quest and FAME (the wraparound support provided by Quest, the broad and high-quality training in FAME, and the focus on high-demand roles in both) to optimize students’ outcomes.

What are some programs that fund apprenticeships and work-based learning in community colleges?

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) youth apprenticeship and Perkins V programs have appropriated funding that could be used to expand work-based training for community college students. For 2022–2023, Congress appropriated $933 million for youth activities under WIOA, while Perkins V provides roughly $1.4 billion in state formula grants for youth and adult training. However, 75% of WIOA funding goes to out-of-school youth, while Perkins funding covers a wide range of career and technical education programs across secondary, postsecondary, and adult learning. Either program could administer additional funding focused on work-based learning tied to a community college degree, but Congress should appropriate or divert funds to serve these needs. Philanthropic funds could also play a role, especially in funding wraparound supports and administrative expenses, but centralized public funding is needed to ensure appropriate funding and rollout.

How does work affect community college students’ academic attainment?

Contrary to popular belief, working while going to community college does not necessarily detract from student performance. Researcher Mina Dadgar pulled over 40,000 community college student records from the state of Washington and linked them to tax data. Although work did have a statistically significant negative impact on quarterly credits earned and GPA, it does not have a practically significant negative effect on student outcomes.



From the regression analysis above, we can see that each additional hour of work reduces the quarterly credits earned by .065 credits and grade point average (GPA) by roughly .005 points. Assuming that a student works 15 hours per week, the student would be expected to take one less credit per quarter, or three credits assuming that they are enrolled throughout the year. This is, in effect, one class per year, which while not negligible is not a major loss to academic attainment. Similarly, working 15 hours per week would predict a GPA decline of about .06 points—again, not a substantial effect on academic performance.

Besides grants, how can philanthropies and other capital providers get involved in funding high-quality community college interventions?

One promising structure is the social impact bond (sometimes referred to as pay for success). In this model, private investors provide upfront capital to social intervention programs and are repaid if certain performance targets are met. Although establishing the proper baseline can be challenging, the contract involves payment for reducing the overall cost of service (for instance, interventions that proactively reduce recidivism or hospital visits for chronic disease).



Existing programs focus on the financial returns of “investing” in students’ training and upskilling: for instance, impact financier Social Finance and coding bootcamp General Assembly launched a career impact bond that has funded over 800 underserved individuals seeking a credential in technology. However, there is the potential for much broader assessments of economic value that increase the appeal of comprehensive wraparound solutions. In the case of workforce training, the ideal program design might involve an assessment of the overall reduction in social services associated with individuals trapped in poverty (for instance, increased healthcare costs or extended social services provision) as well as the increase in economic activity and tax receipts from a higher-paying job.


As a result, these types of targets encourage more holistic interventions such as the ones we see in the ASAP and Project Quest programs because investors and program managers benefit from students’ long-term success, not just their short-term success. This also incentivizes rigorous data tracking, which in the long term will provide critical information on intervention packages that have the strongest positive impact while weeding out those that are not as effective in improving outcomes.

Increasing Students Opportunity-to-Learn Through Better Data Systems

Research shows that giving students equitable opportunities to learn requires access to key inputs. These include, at a minimum: access to qualified, experienced, in-field, and effective teachers; a rich curriculum; adequate funding; support staff; up-to-date facilities; standards-based materials; and technology. Since the 1960s education scholars have argued that federal, state, and local policymakers should use evidence-based opportunity-to-learn (OTL) indicators to inform education improvement processes and decisions about educator recruitment and retention, targeted student-centered programming, and equitable resource allocation. The current availability of district-level relief funds, the restarting of state accountability systems, and a possible reauthorization of the federal Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA), are unique policy openings for education leaders to innovate using OTL indicators, incorporate promising practices from existing reporting systems, and establish place-based measures that fit local needs.

Challenge and Opportunity

COVID-19 placed an enormous burden on our education system. Lost instruction, student absences, teacher shortages, school discipline, and the wavering mental health of our nation’s youth have all made headlines since the pandemic began. To address these challenges, policymakers, educators, parents, and community members need multiple data points—in addition to test scores—to both identify achievement and opportunity gaps and spotlight successful models. 

Luckily, a 2019 National Academies of Sciences study, in addition to several resources from the Department of Education and policy experts, demonstrate how OTL indicators can inform school, district, and systems-wide improvement. According to Stephen Elliot and Brendan Bartlett, OTL indicators “generally refer to inputs and processes within a school context necessary for producing student achievement of intended outcomes.” Such indicators can include those identified by the National Academies of Sciences in Table 1 and may also incorporate other indicators of school conditions and outcomes. When states, districts, and schools use various combinations of OTL indicators and disaggregate them by student subgroup, they can more accurately gauge and purposefully increase students’ opportunities to learn.

Table 1. OTL Indicators shared by the National Academies of Sciences
Academic readinessSelf-regulation skills
School engagementCourse performance
Test performanceOn-time graduation
Postsecondary readinessRacial, ethnic, and economic segregation
Access to high-quality pre-K programsEffective teaching
Rigorous courseworkCurricular breadth
Academic supportsSchool climate
Non-exlusionary discipline practicesIntegrated student support services
Source: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Monitoring Educational Equity. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25389.

OTL indicators can also provide information about the nature of the teaching and learning opportunities states, districts, and schools make available to students across the country. For example, if a state’s curriculum frameworks and assessments outline standards for science or career and technical education that requires laboratory work, computers, specialized courses, and teaching expertise—states and districts should know whether students have access to these resources.

Federal and Expert Support for OTL Indicators

Over the past two years the Department of Education (ED) released two key resources supporting OTL implementation:

Table 2. OTL Indicators shared by the Department of Education
Student chronic absenteeism ratesStudent discipline rates (e.g., in-and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions)
Data from student, staff and family surveysAccess to integrated support services (e.g., ratio of students to nurses, counselors, social workers)
Educator certification (e.g., National Board Certification) Educator experience
Educator effectiveness Educator chronic absenteeism and turnover rates
Educator supports (e.g., mentors, induction programs, professional development) Home and school Internet access and student device ratios (e.g., 1:1)
Quality of remote learning Educator access to PD for the effective use of technology
Advanced course participation and completion Culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum designs
Using diagnostic assessments Access to project-based, experiential learning opportunities
Source: U.S. Department of Education. (2021) ED COVID-19 Handbook Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs.

In addition, several organizations released OTL-related resources describing different indicators and how they are being used to support student achievement. For example:

Ideas to Use Data to Increase Opportunities to Learn

Taken together, the resources above from ED and policy experts can facilitate the following local, state, and federal actions to increase the use of OTL indicators.

Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through Local Data Systems

States and districts have broad flexibility to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to support student achievement—including “developing and implementing procedures and systems to improve the preparedness and response efforts of local educational agencies.” These systems could arguably include building data collection and reporting infrastructure to track OTL indicators, monitor student progress, and respond with evidence-based interventions. Instead of starting from scratch, states and districts can pull best practices from existing cradle-to-career models such as the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index, or StriveTogether which track various forms of OTL data from a student’s early years (e.g., kindergarten readiness) through their entry into career paths (e.g., postsecondary enrollment).  School Systems can also adapt aspects of OTL indicators to show how they are meeting the needs of their students. For example, Houston Independent School District has an ESSER Spending Dashboard showing how much funding has been spent on educators, support staff, tutors, devices, programming, and physical health

Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through State Accountability and Improvement and Reporting Systems  

At the state level, policymakers can help advance OTL indicators by using flexibility included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and further described by ED’s 2022 accountability guidance. For example, ESSA requires states to add at least one indicator of “school quality or student success” to their accountability systems. A number of states have responded by adding indicators of college and career readiness, extended-year graduation rates, suspension rates, school climate, and chronic absenteeism, which all provide information about the broader set of outcomes and opportunities that shape student achievement. For example, the District of Columbia amended its ESSA plan in 2022 to include academic growth, access to dual enrollment courses, and a five-year graduation rate. Many states also represent OTL data in accessible formats such as the school data dashboard in California, a parent dashboard in New York, School and District Profiles in Oregon, and school climate survey reports in Illinois

Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through State and Federal Grant Programs

State and federal governments can also incorporate OTL indicators into reporting metrics for grantees. Specifically, state and federal government can solicit feedback on which indicators are most helpful to each program through public notices. By developing equity-centered measures with researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, federal agencies can help grantees build lasting data systems for reporting and continuous improvement. For example, the Full-Service Community School grant program went through negotiated rulemaking to reshape the program’s priorities and drew from suggestions submitted by policy experts to incorporate 13 reporting metrics for new grantees. To help make the collection less burdensome, agencies can also provide technical assistance and release guidance with existing data sources, best practices, and examples.

Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) Implementation and Reauthorization 

The federal government can help states and districts close opportunity gaps by assisting in the collection, reporting, validation, disaggregation, and analysis of OTL data through ESRA-funded programs. For example, states and districts can leverage technical assistance and research dissemination through the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs), creating resources and providing further support through the Comprehensive Centers Program, and equipping the Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) program to aid in building state and local capacity in measuring students’ opportunity to learn. Officials at the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) can also point states and districts to existing models such as Kentucky’s Longitudinal Data System and Washington’s Indicators of Education System Health, which incorporate data across a student’s academic continuum to inform policy and practice. 

Conclusion

If state and local leaders are committed to supporting the “whole child,” then they need more than just outcome-based measures such as test scores or graduation rates (i.e., outputs). So much happens before students take a test or graduate. To improve outcomes, students, parents, teachers, and education stakeholders need better information about factors that contribute to student learning (i.e., inputs). For years federal, state, and local leaders have been assessing our students mainly to find the same persistent achievement gaps, which correlate heavily with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Expanding the use of OTL indicators also assess our federal, state, and local systems so they can find new opportunities for students to learn. 

Putting the fun in fundamental: how playful learning improves children’s outcomes

When we think back to our childhoods, many of us have fond memories of play. Playing outside, playing at school, or playing with friends and siblings often trump memories of worksheets and teacher lectures. Why is that?

Children are born ready to play and explore the world around them. First games of peek-a-boo with a loving caregiver provide an infant with learning and engagement— the infant develops a positive relationship with a caregiver, begins to develop object permanence, and experiences call and response social interactions – all critical steps in a child’s development. 

According to the National Association of the Education of Young Children, play is a critical component of early childhood and children’s physical, social, and emotional development. Children learn best when they are doing. Playful learning includes opportunities for free play directed by the children themselves and guided play, designed by a teacher to provide children access to specific materials, concepts and guidance through hands-on engagement. These opportunities allow children to explore, expand their knowledge, take risks, develop interests, and practice their social and emotional skills. 

Through play, many children are able to demonstrate their knowledge and learning that they otherwise are unable to share on a worksheet or assessment. For teachers, play provides a window into a child’s world that is not easily accessed through paper and pencil. Early childhood and early elementary programs have a critical opportunity to impact a child’s long term development by providing developmentally appropriate playful learning experiences to all children.  

Playful Learning Promotes Child (and Adult) Well-being at a Critical Time  

According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, play can help young children develop resilience and navigate significant adversity. When young children experience playful learning, they benefit from enhanced problem solving, communication, decision-making and creative skills. Teachers and caregivers who encourage play and exploration establish  positive relationships. Through this,children develop positive self-esteem and approaches to learning that can carry them for many years. All of these skills are not only critical now, but will increasingly be more important as the next generation moves forward into the future. 

Unfortunately, play has become less valued over the last decade or so as school systems have put emphasis on scholastic curricula. We know that kindergarten classrooms are by and large offering less play time and more academic curriculum. Preschool programs are feeling the pressure of getting children “ready for school.” However, our children are experiencing unprecedented stress due to the pandemic, community violence and general unrest in the world. In addition, evidence suggests that children have experienced learning and development loss due to the pandemic. Now more than ever is the time to ensure they are getting what they need through playful learning. 

Teachers working with our youngest children are also facing significant challenges as children and families return to the new normal of school on top of their own personal stressors. According to EducationWeek, many teachers continue to report high levels of stress and anxiety as a result of working through and post-pandemic. Teachers are not only continuing to manage virus exposure but are expected to address learning loss of their students, navigate mental health needs while all the while meeting increasingly more rigorous standards during a teacher shortage. Could “allowing” teachers to do what’s best for children and utilize playful learning as a primary strategy not only support children through this trying time but also provide a more relaxed supportive environment for teachers as well? Rather than spending time copying worksheets, conducting testing and focusing on rote memorization, play would be beneficial for teachers and children alike. 

In the United States, play is often considered a four letter word mistakenly associated with less academic instruction and ultimately, lower test scores. However, the tide is changing as more and more communities both in the U.S. and abroad begin to recognize that both free and guided play in early childhood can provide children important opportunities for learning, growth and ultimately success in school and life. 

Three Lessons from Quality, Play-based Early Learning Programs 

Educators and policymakers alike can learn a lot from other countries’ experiences developing quality, play-based early childhood programs. There have been great strides in adopting playful learning — even in  low-resource contexts and in school systems where primary schooling tends to follow more traditional teacher-led approaches. Here are three examples of how play has contributed to quality early learning outside the U.S. to show what might be possible.

Playful learning is key to quality early child education: Lively Minds in Ghana

While Ghana introduced two years of kindergarten for four- and five-year olds as part of the universal basic education system in 2007, many schools faced difficulties training and retaining teachers. Large class sizes, limited play and learning materials, and rote teaching approaches are common in preschools. In response to these challenges, Lively Minds, an NGO,  developed community-led, play-based early learning programs, known as “Play Schemes” in schools. In partnership with the Ghana Education Service, Lively Minds trained two kindergarten teachers from each participating school who then trained 30-40 mothers to be play scheme facilitators. Four days a week, volunteer mothers run play stations with small groups of children focused on: counting; matching; shapes and senses; books; and building. Parents also participate in monthly workshops to learn to support their children’s health, development, and learning at home.

The program is delivered within the existing government system to promote sustainability. Government and Lively Minds staff jointly monitor the implementation of the play schemes. A randomized control trial in rural Ghana found that Lively Minds significantly improved children’s emerging literacy, executive functioning, and fine motor skills. Children from poorer households benefited more from the program; emergent literacy skills also improved in this group of children. Participating children’s socio-emotional development improved as conduct problems and hyperactive behaviors decreased. Acute malnutrition decreased by a remarkable 22% among children attending Play Schemes. Volunteer mothers improved their self-esteem and mental health as well as their knowledge about child development. They also spent more time on developmentally appropriate activities with their children at home. 

Currently, the Ghanaian government is rolling out Lively Minds in 60 of the country’s 228 districts, reaching approximately 4,000 preschool classrooms and more than 1.3 million young children. A new study will evaluate the program’s effectiveness at  scale.

Increasing equity through play: Play Labs in Bangladesh

The second example comes from Bangladesh, where the development organization BRAC created the Play Lab model, a low-cost, non-formal approach to play-based learning for children ages 3-5. These vibrant, child-friendly spaces follow a play-based curriculum and use low-cost recycled materials. Play Leaders, young women selected from the community, give young children space and time to explore their own interests and ideas. Play Leaders also engage young children in culturally-relevant rhymes, stories, and dancing to encourage joy-filled learning. Since 2015, Play Labs have reached over 115,000 children in local communities, government schools, and refugee camps in Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Uganda. 

A quasi-experimental evaluation in 2018-2019 in Bangladesh found that the Play Labs improved children’s development across physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional domains. In fact, after two years in the Play Labs, children who scored below average at baseline were able to catch up to their peers who entered with the highest scores; no such pattern was found in the control group. By reducing these initial gaps among children, Play Labs helped improve equity and promote school readiness for very disadvantaged young children. Play Leaders not only increased their early childhood knowledge and skills, but also the quality of their interactions with children.  

Reaching children experiencing crisis and conflict: Remote early childhood education program in Lebanon

In Lebanon, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) worked with Sesame Workshop to implement an 11-week Remote Early Learning Program for families affected by conflict and crisis. The curriculum focuses on social and emotional learning and school readiness skills and targets mostly (96%) Syrian caregivers with 5-6 year old children living in hard-to-access areas of Lebanon, where exposure to preschool is very limited. As with quality, in-person early childhood education, the remote program focuses on engaging children through hands-on and play-based activities. Participating families receive supplies and worksheets to use in the activities with their children. Teachers use WhatsApp to call groups of parents and send multimedia content (e.g., videos, storybooks, songs) 2-3 times a week. The first five minutes of the call involve the child to help foster their connections with the teacher, while the remainder of time engages the parent on how early childhood activities support children’s development and learning. 

A 2022 study compared the impact of the Remote Early Learning Program (RELP) alone and in combination with a remote parent support program that focuses more broadly on early childhood development. Both forms of the intervention had significant, positive effects on child development and child play compared to the control group. The authors remark that: “The size of the impacts found on child development is in the range of those seen in evaluations of in-person preschool from around the world, suggesting that RELP is a viable alternative to support children in places where in-person preschool is not feasible.”

Enabling Play-Based Policies in the U.S. are Needed

While these different modalities – home-based, center-based, remote learning – are promising approaches to support young children’s learning through play, they will not be implemented or scaled in the United States without an enabling policy environment. This means playful learning should be included in policy documents, legislation, standards, and curricula. It should also be supported by committing adequate financial resources for teachers to create playful learning environments and opportunities. 

We’re seeing this happen in countries that are known for their high scores on international assessments, but less for their child-centered approaches in the early years. For example, in 2019, South Korea introduced a revised curriculum for 3 to 5 year olds that is organized around learning domains instead of by age. The goal is to shift from an academic approach to early childhood education to one that is more child-focused and play-based

In 2012, Singapore revamped its Nurturing Early Learners curriculum for children ages 4 to 6 with a key objective being “To give every  child a good start, preschool education nurtures the joy of learning and children’s holistic development.” To support implementation, the government developed educators’ guides and teaching and learning resources. Coincidentally, or not, Singapore ranks 4th in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative assessment that evaluates reading literacy at grade 4. 

One of the more comprehensive approaches comes from Rwanda, which recently revised its curriculum for pre-primary education through upper secondary grades. The competency-based curriculum recognizes the importance of play-based learning to reach intended learning outcomes across ages. The Ministry of Education is now working with partners to develop a national strategy to institutionalize learning through play into teacher training and pedagogical practices. In addition to pre-service and in-service training, components will include appropriate learning materials, assessments, quality assurance mechanisms, monitoring and evaluation, and advocacy to roll out learning through play within the education system.

Five Ways Policymakers Can Introduce Playful Learning into any Education Model Today

We know why playful learning is important. We can take inspiration from successful programs in  some of the most vulnerable contexts. It’s time for policy makers in the U.S. to take steps to make learning through play a reality for our youngest learners:

  1. Include playful learning in policy documents including those related to standards and curriculum
  2. Prioritize funding for high quality developmentally appropriate playful learning in Pre-3
  3. Focus on preparing and supporting teachers to create playful learning environments along the P-3 continuum
  4. Support family members to integrate play into everyday activities with their children
  5. Use appropriate technology to complement in-class activities or to reach those who do not have access to early childhood education

The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.

Healthy Kids, High Grades: Using Data to Evaluate Health and Education Policy

It’s back-to-school time! As kids from across the country get back into classrooms this fall, many of them, at least in Colorado and Minnesota, will be attending a school that will offer free meals to all students through new state programs that voters approved last year. That’s good news for individual students and their classrooms. This post will look at why.

Using innovative data linkages and analysis, research finds that these policies, in combination with other school- and broad-based health policies, effectively enhance not just children’s health and wellbeing but also their reading, math, and classroom behavior. Moreover, the health policy effects on educational outcomes are comparable to a $1,000 increase in per-pupil spending.

Examining the Education Effects of Health Policies

A recent study systematically reviewed and synthesized results from 56 studies to evaluate the causal impact of various health policies targeting school-aged children and their parents on children’s education in the U.S. (Disclosure: this was my study, in conjunction with a graduate student.) We found that several health policies and programs aimed at improving the physical health of children and parents, particularly from low-income households, have positive effects on educational attainment. 

For example, nutritional policies in schools, similar to the “Health School Meals for All” program started in Colorado this year, builds on empirical evidence from similar initiatives rolled out by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in select districts across the country through a program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Careful empirical analysis found that the CEP, which was designed to universalize the access to healthy school meals in high poverty school districts, improved children’s math scores (albeit primarily in schools serving the most vulnerable kids from low-income households). Similarly, researchers also found that this policy reduced adverse school disciplinary outcomes—such as suspensions and expulsions  across several parts of the country, particularly for children from low-income households.

Reducing Hunger Improves Performance in School

Food insecurity affected nearly 10 million children in 2019 according to estimates from the USDA. This situation increased during the height of the pandemic despite stop-gap arrangements such as the pandemic-EBT. Research has shown the deleterious effects of food insecurity on a whole host of learning and socioemotional outcomes for children. Some children end up eating their only meal in school. This makes school-based nutritional policies an important complement to other broad-based, nutritional policies—such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Studies find that at the end of the SNAP benefit cycle, students experience negative effects on their learning and behavior.  

Children Lacking Health Insurance Struggle in School

With child poverty rising dramatically in recent weeks, it is hard not to stress the importance of access to subsidized, quality healthcare for our most vulnerable children. While past research clarified the beneficial effects of health insurance access—such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—on children’s health and wellbeing; more recently, researchers are uncovering the positive, educational effects from these policies as well. When parents gained access to Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, the benefits transferred over to their children, too. Studies show these children improved their reading scores and reduced the stubborn white-Black math achievement gap, achievement differences in math standardized test scores between white and Black students. 

How do these improvements compare to other educational policy reforms? Indeed, we find that these nutritional interventions, while modest in absolute terms, are roughly comparable to a $1,000 increase in per-pupil spending (annually over four years) in schools. Both sets of federal policies/programs (Medicaid/CHIP as well as per-pupil school funding increases) improve student test scores by about 0.04 standard deviations. Although such comparisons across models/policies is not often straightforward, nevertheless, these research findings provide suggestive evidence that targeted, health policy interventions can be quite effective in improving school-aged children’s educational outcomes.

Integrated Data Linkages Can Power Effective Health-Focused Learning Policies

One significant barrier to examining such cross-policy research and policymaking is the lack of high-quality, integrated data. While some states are beginning to develop robust databases that cover health and education outcomes, we have a long way to go. But, by creating data linkages, we can more quickly find and replicate solutions that support student outcomes.

There are a few such projects underway.  ​For example, California’s “cradle-to-career” is an example of an excellent statewide, longitudinal data system, which plans to connect data on early education, K-12 schools, colleges, social/health services, and employment. Similarly, states like Minnesota, and Wisconsin have also invested in such administrative data linkages between birth records, child welfare, and education data systems. 

Indeed, the Institute of Education Science’s (IES) statewide longitudinal database system program has expanded across the country and education sectors (e.g., P-20/workforce expansions) since 2019. However, modernization and expansions that prioritizes linkages with other key social innovation issues—such as health—through innovative data linkages between education and health and human services, vital statistics (birth records), Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMMS), and child welfare systems represents a huge opportunity.

We hope that such linked datasets will be opened to researchers and policymakers across the country, not least because such datasets have been integral for the development of this nascent literature. For example, one study that used such linked data from Florida to examine the negative effects of environmental pollution on children’s academic achievement. Similarly, another study used linked birth-records and education data to examine the effect of Medicaid access among low-income parents on their children’s reading outcomes in Iowa

We always knew that healthy children do better in school—they pay better attention in class, disrupt less frequently, and learn better when they are healthy and happy. We now have rigorous empirical research to show the precise effects of such health policies on the most vulnerable children’s education. More parents, policymakers, and researchers will gain more knowledge at the health-education nexus when data is shared. 

The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.