The United States Department of Education has sent an open ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to state and local education agencies and their partners to help them understand how to use federal funds to support P-K – 12 STEM education strategies.
On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. The bill, which specifically touches on STEM education, provides a host of provisions through which educators, lawmakers, and partnerships can procure federal funding, resources, and support. The sources from which funds are available include the STEM Master Teacher Corps, Activities to Support Well-Rounded Educational Opportunities, and Century Community Learning Centers.
The Education Department’s open letter works to advertise these means. The letter writers provide specific examples of how federal funds can be used most effectively through the ESSA. They divided these examples into three categories: increasing students equitable access to STEM courses and experiences, supporting educators’ knowledge and expertise in STEM disciplines, and increasing student access to materials and equipment needed for active learning.
A 2013 report found that by the time a low-income student reaches the 6th grade, he or she will have had 6,000 fewer hours of out-of-school or summer enrichment activities than a more economically-advantaged student. Thus, the letter presents some solutions on how to close this gap, specifically focusing on increasing students’ equitable access to STEM education and experiences.
Educators may use federal funds to support dual or concurrent enrollment programs, early college high school models and other methods to increase access to rigor STEM coursework and training. Additionally, out-of-school organizations and partnerships may access the Education Department’s 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to provide STEM experiences. Federal money through the Perkins funds and Magnet School Assistance Program may also be tapped to provide students with internships, volunteer, and mentor programs and bolster STEM-focused curricula.
To support educators’ knowledge and training in STEM disciplines, educators can use Title II funds of ESSA to recruit, train, and advertise STEM education to prospective STEM teachers. Funds under this title can also be used to improve schools’ existing STEM resources; they can help implement new courses such as computer science, engineering, and other professionally-based coursework. The section also guarantees increased funding to STEM educators who work with students with disabilities and with students whose first language is not English.
Finally, the letter details how best to increase student access to materials and equipment needed to support active learning in STEM fields. The ESSA provides funds that can equip students with mobile learning devices, like tablets, laptops, and other devices and improve technological capabilities within the classroom. STEM-learning spaces, such as laboratories, computer labs, and math centers are also eligible to receive funding. Interestingly, the bill encourages educators to use federal funds to connect students with STEM professionals to expose them to potential career paths.
The letter was signed by Nadya Chinoy Dabby, Ann Whalen, Johan Uvin, and Michael K. Yudin, all high-ranking officials serving in the Department of Education.