MIT Stem Pals
November-December 2015

Federal Focus on STEM Improves with Passage of ESSA
From Michael Kaspar

Michael KasparOn Thursday, December 10, President Obama signed the long overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Created in 1965, this statute funds public primary and secondary education, and emphasizes that all students have access to education. Among its many sections, what and how STEM programs can be funded by state and local education agencies are included.

Typically, the government reauthorized ESEA every 5 years since 1965 without much change. That is, until 2001 when the reauthorization of ESEA underwent an extensive overhaul; commonly called the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 or NCLB. NCLB was received with enthusiasm and excitement. Education was finally getting the attention of government for a much-needed overhaul. Our students weren’t doing well on international tests in mathematics and literacy, and something had to be done.

Everyone cheered the new law. But, as with some well-intentioned policies, the implementation was troubled from the beginning. Even with the upending of public schools, students continued to do poorly on international tests. The experiment didn’t work as anticipated.

By 2007, the stipulations of ESEA were clearly onerous; reauthorization was due, if not required. Ultimately, it did not get reauthorized, but instead it was put on life support with continuing resolutions and ‘corrections’ to meet the requirements of the bill. In regard to the effects of NCLB on education in American life and culture, education historians and their kind are going to have decades’ worth of NCLB information to dissect and analyze.

The Good News…
After eight years and numerous attempts at reauthorization, Congress finally passed a reauthorization of ESEA, renaming NCLB to ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act. This is the bill the President signed on December 10. As in 2001, stakeholders cheer the law. But, perhaps more so because the more onerous parts of the bill have been exorcised.

Over the NCLB years, STEM fields have flourished or declined depending on your point of view. But, there is no doubt STEM floundered in the primary schools. The passage of ESSA holds the promise that STEM education in public schools will improve.

STEM organizations should be encouraged by the legislation, and its emphasis on STEM subjects. While NCLB was more federally focused, ESSA directs funding (block grants) for allocated programs to the states. These are pass-through grants for which states will need to apply to be distributed to their districts.

But, remember, ESSA is a policy with attached federal funding. How the policy will work for states will determine the success of ESSA’s goals. At this stage, the states will be challenged to learn how to manage locally focused funding streams to build educational infrastructure based on their state and local needs.

While the Math-Science Partnership grant program through the US Department of Education was cut from the bill, it does include important pro-STEM education language including required math and science standards, expanded state certification and professional development for STEM teachers, and allocated funding percentages for STEM learning. A summary can be found at:

Cheers to the government for doing what they should have done years ago. High hopes for successful STEM programs that will address the needs of all of our students. As the President said upon signing the bill, “Now the hard work begins.”

Michael Kaspar is the Senior Policy Analyst staffing the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics desk for the National Education Association. He is the founding director of the DC STEM Alliance and the DC Science Teachers Association.

Back to newsletter