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.
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:
- Volume 2 of ED’s 2021 COVID-19 Handbook includes a section describing how states and districts can “use data about students opportunity to learn to help target resources and support.” This resource also lists several indicators for states to consider included in Table 2.
- ED’s 2022 guidance to states about their accountability systems mentions that states may modify their academic and School Quality and Student Success (SQSS) indicators under ESSA—specifically noting that they may pull from the list of OTL measures listed in ED’s COVID-19 Handbook. This guidance also “encourages SEAs, LEAs, and schools to include OTL measures and measures on the impact of COVID-19 as a part of the school improvement planning process.”
In addition, several organizations released OTL-related resources describing different indicators and how they are being used to support student achievement. For example:
- In 2023, the National Center for Education Statistics created an Equity in Education Dashboard pulling together available data connected to NAS’s 2019 report.
- In 2022, the Aspen Institute released a bipartisan set of OTL principles. These principles note how OTL indicators can create a shift in mindset “from a system and policy frame that measures students, to once that measures systems.”
- In 2022, the National Education Policy Center highlighted ED’s list of OTL indicators, arguing that these measures have never mattered more because they can expose the “systematic social and political structures” that create inequitable learning opportunities.
- In 2022, the Southern Education Foundation released a report recommending states revise their accountability systems to emphasize socio-economic factors, physical environments, health and wellness measures, and sociocultural metrics as a way to address achievement gaps.
- In 2021, MRDC published Equity Metrics, Measures, and Analytic Approaches in Education Research, which pulls together metrics from NAS and a 2018 UNESCO report.
- In 2021, Chiefs for Change released a tool for tracking multiple indicators of system-level student wellbeing, including measures of student flourishing, student mental health outcomes, school-based metrics, and state-connected supports.
- In 2021, FutureED released a report on equity measures. The report describes the history of OTL indicators, discusses criteria for choosing impactful metrics, and provides examples of OTL indicators in action.
- In 2020, the Center for Assessment released a resource describing why OTL data is important and how to collect it. This resource also includes a descriptive list of examples of potential indicators with a variety of ways states, districts, and schools can collect them.
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.
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.
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:
- Include playful learning in policy documents including those related to standards and curriculum
- Prioritize funding for high quality developmentally appropriate playful learning in Pre-3
- Focus on preparing and supporting teachers to create playful learning environments along the P-3 continuum
- Support family members to integrate play into everyday activities with their children
- 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.
Our nation’s health and the future of scientific research depend on greater inclusion of underrepresented individuals in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields—and in the biomedical sciences in particular. Our nation’s scientists are a homogeneous group: majority white, despite the U.S. population rapidly increasing in diversity. A biomedical science workforce that reflects our nation’s demographics is required to address growing equity gaps and distinct health needs that accompany our diversifying country. This cannot be accomplished without inclusive and practical biomedical educational programs that begin at the PreK–12 level and continue through all levels of higher education, emphasizing Minority Serving Institution (MSI) research programs.
The lack of diversity in biomedical science is unacceptable, especially for an administration deeply committed to equity across its policy agenda. The Biden-Harris Administration must act to address this issue in the biomedical sciences at all levels: from PreK-12 education to research careers. Using the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s program Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (MSIPP) as a model, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should establish a Biomedical Research Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (BioMSIPP) to build a sustainable pipeline between NIH’s institutes and centers and biomedical science students at MSIs.
Educational interventions are also crucial at earlier stages of education than higher education. BioMSIPP would also include a grant program that funds participating MSIs to produce PreK-12 educational resources (i.e. SEPA tools) and to create a high school to undergraduate bridge program to further link educational interventions with biomedical research careers. We also propose that the Department of Education’s White House Initiative for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), and other MSIs, create community-based engagement plans to assess the needs of individual communities and generate data to aid in future programming. Simultaneously, the Department of Education (ED) should launch a Bright Spots campaign to highlight efforts taking place across the country, building examples for policymakers as roadmaps to bolster biomedical science education and excellence.
Challenge and Opportunity
On June 25, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order establishing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) as national priorities. This order authorized the reestablishing of a coordinated government-wide DEIA Initiative and Strategic Plan. From there, over 50 federal agencies, including ED, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and NIH, released equity action plans, which can be strengthened by supporting meaningful partnerships with MSIs.
MSIs offer broad access to higher education for students who would otherwise not have the opportunity, such as underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, first-generation-to-college students, adult learners, and other post-traditional or nontraditional students. Furthermore, these institutions set an example of DEIA through diverse leadership, administration, and faculty, which is not seen at predominately white institutions (PWIs). The federal government should support institutions that foster diverse talent and the pipelines that feed these institutions through MSI-guided programming for PreK–12 students.
Despite a marginal increase in racially diverse doctorate graduates, there is still a substantial gap in the number of historically marginalized groups that enter and stay in the biomedical enterprise. While there are training programs (see Table 1) to diversify the biomedical sciences at federal agencies such as NIH and NSF, these programs have failed to substantially change the national percentage of racially diverse biomedical scientists. This is in part because the structure of these programs often does not support MSIs in building research capacity, an essential aspect in raising the research classification of an institution determined partly by research spending. In addition, current federal programs do not effectively capture the full spectrum of diverse students since they leave out engagement at the PreK–12 years.
Early exposure to STEM careers is essential to increased STEM participation and success. In fact, getting children involved in STEM-related activities at a young age has been demonstrated to bolster enrollment in STEM degrees and participation in STEM-related careers. Programs focused on STEM education at the PreK–12 level encourage learning in engineering, technology, and computer-based skills. We propose a focused approach in the field of biomedical science. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM-related occupations are estimated to grow by 10.8 percent in the next 10 years, and biomedical science is estimated to see exponential growth at 17 percent. A sustainable and diverse STEM ecosystem requires education interventions focused on biomedical sciences at an early age. Currently, interventions primarily focus on undergraduate and graduate students, leaving out formative PreK–12 years (Table 1). ED has programs to immerse PreK–12 students into STEM and to support STEM capacity at MSIs through the Title III Higher Education Act, but none focused specifically on biomedical science.
|Department or Agency||Program||PreK-12 programs in the biomedical sciences?|
National Institutes of Health
|Maximizing Access to Research Careers||No|
|National Institutes of Health||Minority Biomedical Research Support Program||Yes (supplement)|
|National Institutes of Health||Research Infrastructure in Minority Institutions||No|
|National Institutes of Health||High School Scientific Training and Enrichment Program 2.0||Yes (high school seniors in DC, VA, or MD only)|
|National Science Foundation||Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology||Yes (supplement)|
|National Science Foundation||HBCU Research Infrastructure for Science and Engineering||No|
|National Science Foundation||Hispanic Serving Institutions Program||No|
|National Science Foundation||Discovery Research Pre-K||Yes|
|Department of Defense||Research and Education Program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities / Minority-Serving Institutions||No|
|Department of Defense||Historically Black Colleges and Universities / Minority Serving Institution Science Program||No|
|Department of Defense||Hispanic Serving Institutions Program||No|
Plan of Action
The U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health should collaborate to create a program that strengthens the biomedical science pipeline. NIH and ED are committed to diversity and inclusion in their respective strategic plans. Leveraging their combined resources to strengthen and diversify the biomedical sciences would work toward the DEIA goals set in their strategic plans and prioritized by the Biden-Harris Administration at large. More importantly, it would take an essential step toward creating a biomedical workforce that represents and serves the diverse makeup of the U.S. population.
We propose a new program to address the disparities in the biomedical science education pipeline through NIH and ED collaboration by:
- Establishing a direct pipeline from MSIs to regional educational and NIH-funded laboratories.
- Collaborating with the White House initiatives for HBCUs, HSIs, and other MSIs to create community-based engagement plans to assess the needs of individual communities and generate data to aid in future programming.
- Amplifying these combined efforts and their outcomes as models for any future policy through a Bright Spots campaign.
Recommendation 1. Establish a Biomedical Research Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program (BioMSIPP) to serve as a direct pipeline from MSIs to the research capacity resources at the Department of Education and the research laboratories at the National Institutes of Health.
The Department of Energy established the Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program to build a “sustainable pipeline between the Department of Energy’s (DOE) sites/labs and minority-serving institutions in STEM disciplines.” This program is an example of direct measures to invest in university research capacity and workforce development through relationships between the federal government and institutions that serve historically marginalized populations. The program consists of a network of DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) national laboratories, nonprofit organizations, and MSIs through enrichment activities that span from PreK–12 to the postdoctoral level. We recommend that ED and NIH collaboratively fund and implement a similar program that includes a network of highly-funded NIH laboratories, nonprofit organizations, MSIs, and PreK–12 schools that serve historically marginalized communities.
The program should be implemented under ED, with support from NIH’s research resources and laboratories. The Higher Education Act of 2022 requires ED to provide grants for activities such as research capacity building and institutional support. Further, research capacity grants funded through ED allow for hiring administrative staff to support project management. Opening the capability of funding to include staff to support project management circumvents the eligibility requirement where the sponsoring institution must assure support for the proposed program, a possible barrier to entry.
Recommendation 2. The Department of Education’s White House initiatives for HBCUs, HSIs, and other MSIs should create community-based engagement plans to assess individual community needs and generate data to aid in future programming.
Diversity in the biomedical sciences is an ever-evolving conversation. Currently, the White House Initiatives for HBCUs and HSIs have working groups that collaborate with other federal agencies to develop best practices to diversify the STEM workforce. First, we charge the White House to expand these working groups to include the entire spectrum of MSIs, as well as to include representation from NIH, providing a crucial biomedical science perspective. Next, the working groups should write a report on best practices to engage with historically marginalized PreK–12 school districts in the biomedical sciences, and in particular, approaches to train teachers in teaching biomedical sciences to historically underrepresented students.
Recommendation 3. The Department of Education, along with the National Institutes of Health, should launch a Bright Spots campaign to highlight efforts that are taking place across the country to bolster biomedical science education and excellence.
Bright Spots campaigns highlight transformative work done by school districts, nonprofits, and federal agencies in education. NIH and ED both have repositories for science education resources. The NIH funds the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, which awards grants to create resources that target state and national PreK–12 standards for STEM teaching and learning and are rigorously evaluated for effectiveness. Likewise, ED funds the Minority Science and Engineering Improvement program to aid MSIs in enhancing their STEM education programs.
We propose that ED and NIH launch a campaign similar to the Bright Spots in Hispanic Education Fulfilling America’s Future spearheaded by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Moreover, we charge both agencies with disseminating the campaign via webinars, conference exhibitions, and outreach to educational societies.
ED and NIH are at the forefront of our nation’s biomedical science enterprise and have access to funding, cutting-edge research, and technology that could greatly enhance research and education at every level of the educational spectrum, specifically by increasing diversity. To ensure that the biomedical workforce reflects our nation, we must increase the research capacity and resources available to MSIs, promote collaborative research and technology transfer between investigators from MSIs and NIH, and provide key educational resources for student enrichment and career development. Through these recommendations, we hope to close the achievement gap and propel PreK–12 students into achieving careers in the biomedical sciences.
Addressing national priorities in innovation demands a larger-scale effort to support incoming students’ education and workforce training. MSIs are an underutilized and underfunded resource for training and strengthening the biomedical research workforce.
Existing programs at the DoD, NIH, and NSF are limited either to the undergraduate level or to a specific geographic location. Our recommended program is designed for Pre–K to the postdoctoral level, like MSIPP.
We estimate that BioMSIPP will cost about the same as the MSIPP program, which currently costs the Department of Energy $38.8 million.
With the growing prominence of technology and social media in our lives, children of all ages should be made aware of and trained on the ethics of responsible technology usage. Creating a National Digital Ethics Framework for PreK–12 students will enable them to think critically, behave responsibly, and maintain mental health wellness in a digitally transforming world.
Technology is at the forefront of spreading information: news is read on mobile devices, teachers use applications and open-source software in classrooms, and social media defines the lives and status of youth. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased technology use among tweens (8–12 years) and teens, with millions of students using digital entertainment such as TikTok, Instagram, and streaming services. But social media is not the only way students are introduced early to technology; online meetings through applications such as Zoom and Webex became the face of communication, and internet access is required for homework, assignments, and learning in all levels of schooling.
We are not adequately preparing our youth to create a positive digital footprint or have basic internet safety awareness. Implementing internet safety and digital ethics curriculum is imperative, and there is no better time to start than now.
A National Digital Ethics Framework would allow students not just to follow protocols and procedures but also to think critically, behave responsibly, and maintain mental health wellness in a digitally transforming world. This can go further to include concepts like leaving a digital footprint, wherein students engage with technology and media to create content, seek information, communicate ideas, and use open-source platforms in a meaningful and safe manner.
Challenge and Opportunity
Children start interfacing with technology as early as 3–4 years old, and they become increasingly dependent on it through their formative years as digital and social media platforms become ever more indispensable tools for navigating the world. Kids aged 8 to 12 spend an average of six hours per day using entertainment media. By the time they’re teenagers, 95 percent of youth in the United States will have their own mobile device and will, on average, spend almost nine hours a day texting, playing games, posting to social media, watching videos, and more. As tweens and teens move into the middle and high school years, they have ongoing, 24/7 access to friends
and peers via apps and mobile devices, with 45 percent of teens saying they’re online “almost constantly.”
On average, parents allow independent internet usage at 8 years old, and the average age that children sign up for social media is 12.6 years old. In 2021, 59 percent of U.S. tween/teenage students had been cyberbullied or threatened online; we cannot expect a 12-year-old to know how to deal with these dangers on their own.
Despite our increasing reliance on technology, it is not reflected in the learning experiences of PreK–12 students. Digital ethics and internet safety need to be heavily emphasized and implemented in the classroom. This can include simple practices like how to distinguish useful information from spam, using reputable and legitimate sites for references, and understanding copyright issues while quoting information and images from the internet. Digital ethics is a critical 21st-century skill that can be taught alongside computer science courses in schools or in conjunction with coursework that requires students to engage with the internet while seeking information.
Students need increased fluency in information literacy, cyberbullying prevention, online safety, digital responsibility, and emotional well-being. There is currently an internet safety requirement for schools under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) to “educate minors about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social networking websites, in chat rooms, and cyberbullying awareness.” The requirements state that this education can be held through school assemblies or via presentations provided by Netsmartz. The presentations highlight important topics, but they are not particularly specific or relevant to today’s environment. Simple internet safety such as avoiding clicking on links sent through spam emails, how and when to use the “block” button on social media platforms, and how to create smart passwords are not covered in the current curriculum.
Developing a federal framework will give teachers a clear path to implementation. The vagueness of current internet safety education requirements means that this education is easily overlooked or not presented thoroughly. Integrating this curriculum into CIPA would allow for easier implementation while leveraging existing resources. In order to implement this at the PreK–12 level, teachers will have to be trained on how to deliver this curriculum. Instead of trying to restrict social media usage and heavily monitor or block internet activity, schools should consider this as an opportunity to help students navigate a digitally transforming world in an informed way.
Plan of Action
Recommendation 1. In order to achieve the goal of digital ethics for all learners, the federal government can take a number of steps to keep kids safer in online settings.
- The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) should work with external stakeholders, other federal agencies, and experts to build a National Digital Ethics Framework that outlines the key objectives and standards to teach digital ethics across all grade bands and subjects from PreK to 12th grade.
- The U.S. Department of Education should issue nonregulatory guidance about how to utilize existing grant dollars—particularly from Title II Part A—to support professional development for PreK–12 educators on integrating digital ethics into their classroom content and reference the framework created by NIST.
- The National Science Foundation should allocate a portion of the STEM +C or CS for All grants toward digital ethics and incentivize research on the best tools, resources, and strategies to teach digital ethics. This could include research on how to better embed digital ethics into computer science education.
- The U.S. Department of Education should create a website and toolkit to identify federally funded tools and resources that educators and families could use to support digital literacy and internet safety.
- The U.S. Department of Education should develop best practices and recommendations that can be piloted across classrooms in different regions.
- The U.S. Department of Education should add a question to the Civil Rights Data Collection on whether digital literacy and internet safety are taught in schools.
At a federal level, CIPA is a great avenue to authorize these standards. The act currently applies its internet safety education requirements to “schools and libraries that receive discounts for Internet access through the E-rate program,” which makes certain communications tools affordable for these institutions. Although this does not cover all schools in the United States, schools with less ability to finance technology have the greatest need for digital literacy and internet safety education. By implementing this curriculum under CIPA’s current education suggestions (which are guidelines, not a specific way to conduct internet safety education), then it is likely to be implemented in schools that qualify for CIPA discounts.
Recommendation 2. As the digital ethics framework rolls out, agencies should work with critical stakeholders.
Efforts should directly engage elementary and middle school students and their teachers in designing frameworks, professional learning, and so on. Other stakeholders include state-level legislators that will be responsible for operationalizing and implementing the framework and school district boards that approve learning in each school district/school. Teachers are also key stakeholders, as they will have to receive and implement the information given to them as listed in the standards and may be subject to training.
Recommendation 3. Allocate federal funding to NIST to develop the Digital Ethics Framework and provide temporary staff through fellows with subject matter expertise on how to develop a digital ethics framework.
It will require approximately $1 million to develop the framework. The other actions as part of Digital Ethics for All utilize existing funds but could be bolstered and more quickly executed with the addition of subject matter experts through fellow placements or other staffing mechanisms. It is estimated that one fellow at NSF and one fellow at the U.S. Department of Education would cost approximately $500,000 annually in addition to the above costs.
Having access to a curriculum rooted in digital ethics, internet safety, and technology career paths is essential for students growing up in a society where access to technology is introduced earlier than the concept of computer science. Although computer science curriculum is being widely pushed for at the high school level, we must make sure to educate elementary and middle school youth as well. A National Digital Ethics Framework is not just an advantage—it is imperative in order to protect our students and their future.
Organizations that are developing curriculums centered around digital tools and computer science, such as Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and CSforAll, could be tapped in order to pull topics or ideas from the standards they have already created. Their standards have been implemented in various states, so leveraging their existing resources will make it easier to develop a national curriculum that is suited for approval and implementation.
Subject matter experts are crucial for this initiative. Their perspective will be important to determine which standards have the best chance of being approved at the state and local level and how CIPA’s current curriculum can be modified. Subject matter experts will be fellows from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. The National Institute of Standards and Technology will also be consulted.
Due to the incorporation of this curriculum into CIPA’s current standards, it would be quicker to implement at a federal level. However, if digital ethics cannot be incorporated into CIPA, it could also be addressed at a state level, similar to the initiatives run by CSTA and CSforAll, where their independent curriculum and standards are adopted by states that want to implement technology standards.
In my own experience as a student and as the CEO and founder of Likeable STEM (an educational technology training company), I have observed that students lack resources to teach them about simple topics such as phishing scams, how to write appropriate emails, cybersecurity/password creation, social media profiles, etc. For the past six years, through Likeable STEM, I have taught these crucial topics to elementary, middle, and high school students and created independent curriculum on digital ethics.
Computer science education has been a bipartisan concern, with both the Democratic and Republican Parties introducing educational principles to support STEM growth and computer science career opportunities. However, one problem area would be the current crackdown on educational topics in states such as Florida. Digital ethics does not have roots in either political party, so it should be likely to be supported by both parties.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are powerful levers for improving the quality of life for everyone in the United States. The connection between STEM’s transformative potential and its current impact on structural societal problems starts in the high school classroom.
Teachers play a critical role in fostering student cultural awareness and competency. Research demonstrates that teachers and students alike are eager to affect progress on issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). Educational research also demonstrates that DEIA and empathy enhance student sense of belonging and persistence in professional STEM pathways. However, formal STEM learning experiences lack opportunities for students to practice cultural competency and explore applications of STEM to social justice issues.
Cultural Competency is the ability to understand, empathize, and communicate with others as part of a diverse community.
The Biden-Harris Administration should establish the STEMpathy Task Force to aid high school STEM teachers in establishing cultural competency as an overarching learning goal. Through this action, the Administration would signal the prioritization of STEM equity—reflected in both the classroom and the broader community—across the United States. The program would address two pertinent issues in the STEM pipeline: the lack of momentum in STEM workforce diversification and STEM’s unfulfilled promise to relieve our society of systems of oppression and bias. Students need to be taught not only the scientific method and scientific discourse, but also how to approach their science in a manner that best uplifts all people.
Challenge & Opportunity
In a 2017 survey, over 1,900 U.S. companies listed the ability to work effectively with customers, clients, and businesses from a range of different countries and cultures as a critical skill. Since then, the importance of cultural competency in the U.S. workforce has become increasingly apparent.
Culturally competent workers are more creative and better equipped to solve tricky problems. For example, foresters have managed wildfires by following the instruction and guidance of tribal nations and traditional ecological knowledges. Engineers have designed infrastructure that lowers the water bills of farmers in drought-stricken areas. Public health representatives have assuaged concerns about COVID-19 vaccines in under-served communities. STEM professionals who improve Americans’ quality of life do so by collaborating and communicating with people from diverse backgrounds. When students can see these intersections between STEM and social change, they understand that STEM is not limited to a classroom, lab, or field activity but is also a tool for community building and societal progress.
Today’s middle and high school students are increasingly concerned about issues around race/ethnicity, gender, and equity. Recent college graduates also share these interests, and many demonstrate a growing desire to participate in meaningful work and to pursue social careers. When students realize that STEM fields are compatible with their passion for topics related to identity and social inequities, they are more likely to pursue STEM careers—and stick with them. This is the way to create a generation of professionals who act with STEMpathy.
To unite STEM subjects with themes of social progress, cultural competency must become a critical component of STEM education. Under this framework, teachers would use curricula to address systemic social inequities and augment learning by drawing from students’ personal experiences (Box 1). This focus would align with ongoing efforts to promote project-based learning, social-emotional learning, and career and technical education in classrooms across the United States.
|American high school STEM students will demonstrate an understanding of and empathy for how people from varied backgrounds are affected by environmental and social issues. An environmental sciences student in California understands the risks posed by solar farms to agricultural production in the Midwest. They seek to design solar panels that do not disrupt soil drainage systems and financially benefit farmers.An astronomy student in Florida empathizes with Indigenous Hawaiians who are fighting against the construction of a massive telescope on their land. The student signs petitions to prevent the telescope from being built.A chemistry student in Texas learns that many immigrants struggle to understand healthcare professionals. They volunteer as a translator in their local clinic.A computer science student in Georgia discovers that many fellow residents do not know when or where to vote. They develop a chatbot that reminds their neighbors of polling place information.|
With such changes to the STEM lessons, the average U.S. high school graduate would have both a stronger sense of community within STEM classrooms and the capacity to operate at a professional level in intercultural contexts. STEM classroom culture would shift accordingly to empower and amplify diverse perspectives and redefine STEM as a common good in the service of advancing society.
Plan of Action
Through an executive order, the Biden-Harris Administration should create a STEMpathy Task Force committed to building values of inclusion and public service into the United States’ STEM workforce. The task force would assist U.S. high schools in producing college- and career-ready, culturally competent STEM students. The intended outcome is to observe a 20 percent increase in the likelihood of students of color and female- and nonbinary-identifying students to pursue a college degree in a STEM field and for at least 40 percent of surveyed U.S. high school students to demonstrate awareness and understanding of cultural competence skills. Both outcomes should be measured by National Center for Education Research data 5–10 years after the task force is established.
The STEMpathy Task Force would be coordinated by the Subcommittee on Federal Coordination in STEM Education (FC-STEM) from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The interagency working group would partner with education-focused organizations, research institutions, and philanthropy foundations to achieve their goals (FAQ #6). These partnerships would allow the White House to draw upon expertise within the STEM education sphere to address the following priorities:
- Publish guides on cultural-competency-oriented learning goals for STEM students that comply with STEM curricula and standards frameworks, as well as on suggested assessments for measuring student achievement in cultural competency skills.
- Issue nonregulatory guidance on federal funding streams for paid teacher professional development opportunities that improve their ability to teach students to apply STEM concepts to public service projects.
- Consider adding cultural competency assessments and measures into federally funded programs such as the What Works Clearinghouse, Blue Ribbon Schools Program, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress science questionnaire.
- Highlight and reward educators and schools that demonstrate high student achievement in science and cultural competence skills.1
Working toward these priorities will equip the next generation of STEM professionals with cultural competence skills. The task force will form effective STEM teaching methods that result in measurable improvement in STEM major diversity and career readiness.
This approach meets the objectives of existing federal STEM education efforts without imposing classroom standards on U.S. educators. In the Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan, the Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education (Co-STEM) aims to (1) increase work-based learning and training, (2) lend successful practices from across the learning landscape, and (3) encourage transdisciplinary learning. The Department of Education also prioritizes the professional development of educators to strengthen student learning, as well as meet students’ social, emotional, and academic needs. In these ways, the STEMpathy Task Force furthers the Administration’s education goals.
Current national frameworks for high school STEM learning do not provide students with a strong sense of belonging or an awareness of how STEM can be leveraged to alleviate social inequities. The STEMpathy Task Force would establish a rigorous, adaptable framework to address these challenges head-on and ensure that the United States provides high school students with inclusive, hands-on science classrooms that prepare them to serve the diverse communities of their country. Following the implementation of the STEMpathy Task Force, the Biden-Harris Administration can expect to see (1) an increase in the number and diversity of students pursuing STEM degrees, (2) a reduction in race/ethnicity- and gender-based gaps in the STEM workforce, and (3) an increase in STEM innovations that solve critical challenges for communities across the United States.
In any team setting, students will function effectively and with empathy. They will interact respectfully with people from varied cultural backgrounds. To achieve these behavioral goals, students will learn three key skills, as outlined by the Nebraska Extension NebGuide:
- Increasing cultural and global knowledge. Students understand the historical background of current events, including relevant cultural practices, values, and beliefs. They know how to ask open-minded, open-ended questions to learn more information.
- Self-assessment. Students reflect critically on their biases to engage with others. They understand how their life experience may differ from others based on their identity.
- Active Listening. Students listen for the total meaning of a person’s message. They avoid mental chatter about how they will respond to a person or question, and they do not jump directly to giving advice or offering solutions.
No. Although the task force will conduct research on STEM- and cultural-competency-related learning standards and lesson plans, the OSTP will not create incentives or regulations to force states to adopt the standards or curricula. The task force is careful to work within the existing, approved educational systems to advance the goals of the Department of Education and Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education (Co-STEM).
As observed during recent efforts to teach American students about structural racism and systemic inequality, some parents may find topics pertaining to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility sensitive. The STEMpathy Task Force’s cultural competency-focused efforts, however, are primarily related to empathy and public service. These values are upheld by constituents and their representatives regardless of political leaning. As such, the STEMpathy Task Force may be understood as a bipartisan effort to advance innovation and the economic competitiveness of U.S. graduates.
Another associated risk is the burden created for teachers to incorporate new material into their already-packed schedules and lesson plans. Many teachers are leaving their jobs due to the stressful post-pandemic classroom environment, as well as the imbalance between their paychecks and the strain and value of their work. These concerns may be addressed through the STEMpathy Task Force’s objectives of paid training and rewards systems for educators who model effective teaching methods for others. In these ways, teachers may receive just compensation for their efforts in supporting both their students and the country’s STEM workforce.
In its first two years, the STEMpathy Task Force would complete the following:
- Revise FC-STEM’s “Best Practices For Diversity and Inclusion in Stem Education and Research” guide to include information on evidence-based or emerging practices that promote cultural competence skills in the STEM classroom.
- Train 500+ teachers across the nation to employ teaching strategies and curricula that improve the cultural competence skills of STEM students.
In the next two years, further progress would be made on the following:
- Measure the efficacy of the teacher training program by assessing ~10,000 students’ cultural competence skill development, STEM interest retention and performance, and classroom sense of belonging.
- Reward/recognize 100 schools for high achievement in cultural competency development.
STEM subjects and professionals have the greatest potential to mitigate inequities in American society. Consider the following examples wherein marginalized communities would benefit from STEM professionals who act with cultural competency while working alongside or separate from decision-makers:
- Native Hawaiians aim to protect their land from a telescope that may be built elsewhere
- Women and non-binary people who require precision medicine face built-in biases from biomedical technologies
- Defendants of color are more likely to be wrongly labeled as “high-risk” than white defendants at bail hearings
- Low-income neighborhoods aim to promote healthy eating and skill building by designing an urban farm
- Transgender individuals require specialized, destigmatized healthcare
Furthermore, although the number of STEM jobs in the United States has grown by 7.6 million since 1990, the STEM workforce has been very slow to diversify. Over the past 30 years, the proportion of Black STEM workers increased by only 2 percent and that of Latinx STEM workers by only 3 percent. Women hold only 15 percent of direct science and engineering jobs. LGBTQ male students are 17 percent more likely to leave STEM fields than their heterosexual counterparts.
Hundreds of professional networks, after-school programs, and nonprofit organizations have attempted to tackle these issues by targeting students of color and female-identifying students within STEM. While these commendable efforts have had a profound impact on many individuals’ lives, they are not providing the sweeping, transformative change that could promote not only diversity in the STEM workforce but a generation of STEM professionals who actively participate in helping diverse communities across the United States.
Based on the president’s budget for ongoing STEM-related programming, we estimate that the agency task force would require approximately $100 million. This amount will be divided across involved agencies for STEMpathy Task Force programming.
The STEMpathy Task Force must combine interagency expertise with nongovernmental organizations such as educational nonprofits, research institutions, and philanthropy foundations.
|Government actors||• National Center for Education Research|
|Industry professionals||• National Science Teachers Association|
|Research institutions||• Harvard Graduate School of Education|
|Philanthropy||• Richard Lounsbery Foundation|