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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Research Says / STEM Schools Produce Mixed Results

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On a sunny April morning near Monterey Bay, California, droves of middle and high school students descended on Aptos High School for an underwater robotics competition. Teams of students made last-minute changes to the robots they had designed and built to compete in various "missions" based on real-life challenges confronting the U.S. Coast Guard and other maritime agencies. The students poured themselves into the task, reviewing notes taken from a 400-page, college-level textbook and perfecting their presentations to engineers from a nearby oceanographic institute, who were judging the competition.
The entire scene appeared to disprove the common perception that U.S. students aren't interested in STEM subjects. Unfortunately, statistically speaking, that perception is accurate. Science and engineering degrees account for only about 30 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the United States, compared with more than 50 percent in Japan and China (National Science Board, 2012). To better prepare students to pursue STEM college majors and careers, states and districts across the United States have created schools that focus explicitly on STEM.

No Simple Solutions

To date, however, such STEM academies have produced lackluster results in terms of raising student achievement. Consider three recent studies:
  • A comparison of STEM and non-STEM schools in Florida and North Carolina found no evidence that students in STEM schools performed any better in mathematics (Hansen, 2014).
  • Although students in 30 STEM high schools in New York City performed better than those in regular public schools overall, the researchers found that "more thorough analysis conditioning on a rich set of covariates, including previous grade test performance, reduces or eliminates this advantage" (Wiswall, Stiefel, Schwartz, & Boccardo, 2014, p. 1).
  • An Arizona study tracked students' achievement before and after they transferred into nine STEM charter middle schools and two STEM magnet middle schools. After three years, students demonstrated higher achievement in the STEM charter schools (but no gains in the magnet schools), but researchers cautioned that the gains might simply reflect performance bumps (and selection bias) they observed in all students who transferred to new schools, regardless of the schools' focus (Judson, 2014).
Another question we might ask about STEM schools is whether they increase the likelihood that students will pursue STEM-related college majors or careers. One study of 1,250 students in eight selective STEM schools found that among their students who went on to graduate from college, nearly two-thirds (64.9 percent) received their degrees in STEM fields, far above the national average of 30 percent. However, when the study looked at the trajectories of students who entered selective STEM schools for reasons other than deep interest in STEM, it found that these students were no more apt to pursue STEM careers than students of similar ability who attended regular schools (Subotnik, Tai, & Almarode, 2011). On the basis of this research and other studies, a panel commissioned by the National Research Council (2011) concluded that "there are no systematic data that show whether the highly capable students who attend [STEM] schools would have been just as likely to pursue a STEM major or related career… if they had attended another type of school" (p. 8).

It's What Happens Inside That Matters

A shortcoming of many of these studies is that they do little to describe what may or may not be going on inside STEM schools. To peer into this black box, the previously referenced survey of 1,250 students also looked at which forms of instruction in STEM schools were most strongly tied to students pursuing STEM majors in college. The most significant predictor of students' continued interest in STEM, the study found, was whether students had rich research experiences in high school, such as original scientific investigations or engineering design projects. Such experiences made students, on average, 1.77 times more likely to pursue STEM majors and careers (Subotnik, Tai, & Almarode, 2011).
The National Research Council's 2011 synthesis of research and commissioned papers on STEM schools concluded that to spark student interest in STEM, instruction must help students grapple with big ideas and fundamental questions about the natural world and experience real-world applications of their knowledge. "However," the report observed, "this type of STEM instruction remains the exception in U.S. schools" (p. 19).
According to the study, the most significant obstacle to providing students with the kinds of rich STEM learning experiences that enhance interest in STEM may be our current assessment and accountability schemes. Many statewide tests rely heavily on multiple-choice items that limit the "content and complexity of what [states] test" (National Research Council, 2011, p. 21).
In many cases, schools have responded to accountability pressures by doubling down on rote learning and test prep. For example, a study of 51 STEM academies in Texas, which were ostensibly created to promote project-based learning, found that many of them were employing a traditional pedagogy that included explicit preparation for statewide tests (Young, House, Wang, Singleton, & Klopfenstein, 2011). These schools were operating in a compliance mind-set and employing uninspired approaches to teaching and learning, said the researchers.

Rekindling Student Interest in STEM

The insipid teaching approaches employed by some STEM schools contrast sharply with the energy and excitement of the Monterey underwater robotics competition, which provided exactly the kind of authentic learning that research links to student interest in pursuing STEM careers. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the competition, though, was that it occurred on a Saturday and was not part of any regular school curriculum, which raises the question: Was this kind of learning possible precisely because it occurred outside the regular school day, away from the pressures of content coverage, test preparation, and Carnegie units?
If so, then perhaps we need to step outside these constraints and reconceive STEM learning from a starting point of providing stimulating experiences that spark student interest in these disciplines. That may be a tall order. But if our students are clever enough to figure out how to build robots and navigate them through underwater trials, surely we can figure out how to put the joy of discovery and invention into STEM learning.

Hansen, M. (2014). Characteristics of schools successful in STEM: Evidence from two states' longitudinal data. Journal of Educational Research, 107(5), 374–391.

Judson, E. (2014). Effects of transferring to STEM-focused charter and magnet schools on student achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 107(4), 255–266.

National Research Council. (2011). Successful K–12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Science Board. (2012). Science and engineering indicators 2012. Arlington, VA: Author. Retrieved from

Subotnik, R. F., Tai, R. H., & Almarode, J. (2011, May 10–12). Study of the impact of selective SMT high schools: Reflections on learners gifted and motivated in science and mathematics. Paper prepared for the workshop of the Committee on Highly Successful Schools or Programs for K–12 STEM Education, National Research Council, Washington, DC.

Wiswall, M., Stiefel, L., Schwartz, A. E., & Boccardo, J. (2014, June). Does attending a STEM high school improve student performance? Evidence from New York City. Economics of Education Review, 40, 93–105.

Young, V. M., House, A., Wang, H., Singleton, C., & Klopfenstein, K. (2011). Inclusive STEM schools: Early promise in Texas and unanswered questions. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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