What’s so important about STEM education? For one thing, it’s a pathway to a high-paying job. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs are growing twice as fast as non-STEM jobs. STEM workers are solving many of our most complex problems; as a result, they earn higher incomes and have a major impact on our economic growth.
So, what does the STEM education landscape look like in Missouri? The Education Commission of the States has a Vital Signs database that tracks whether states give students “equitable access to high-quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational experiences.” According to this database, STEM jobs will grow by nine percent in Missouri over the next ten years, including an expected growth of 14 percent in advanced manufacturing jobs. In Missouri, STEM jobs earn, on average, over $34 per hour, compared to $18 per hour for non-STEM jobs.
Unfortunately, in 2013-14, over 30 percent of high school students in Missouri did not have access to Calculus courses, about 20 percent had no access to Physics, and 10 percent couldn’t access Chemistry. In terms of college readiness for STEM, just 5 percent of Missouri high school students took an AP math exam in 2015 and 6 percent took an AP science exam. By comparison, 14 percent of high school students nationwide took an AP math or science exam that year. These data are from a federal data collection, and they match the results of research by Show-Me Institute staff. In the 2015-16 school year, of the school districts in Missouri that had high schools, 40 percent had no students enrolled in advanced Physics or Calculus and over 60 percent had none enrolled in AP courses.
Are these numbers we’re willing to live with? If not, what can be done? Given that just 17 percent of Missouri 8th-graders have math teachers who majored in math and 36 percent have science teachers who majored in science, it’s not likely that we will be able to staff our way out of this any time soon. The good news is that we have the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program (MoVIP)—an underused online course program that could be offered to all high school students in Missouri who don’t have full access to STEM or other courses. Districts can arrange for students to take a course through MoVIP and cover the tuition. Under this scenario, a district could be expected to pay about $450 for a course per semester, and they would be free to negotiate lower rates if, for example, they have several students in the same course. Picking up the tuition for students who successfully complete an online course is a much more cost-effective solution for districts, and it can have a big impact on students’ opportunities.
As we celebrate National School Choice Week, we need to recognize that too many of our high school students have no choice when it comes to STEM classes. The structure to give them access is already in place, and this could be an easy way to meet a vital need.