Amid a fair amount of controversy, the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science became Portland’s newest school last September. It also become the most visible local example yet of the education trend known as STEM, which prioritizes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning. Baxter, one of five charter schools in the state, is uniquely focused on offering a STEM-oriented curriculum; schools across the country are heading in the same direction, shifting an increasing share of their scarce resources to STEM-related programs and directing students toward STEM careers.
It makes sense to emphasize technological and scientific literacy in an increasingly techno-scientific age. But the shaky economics used to justify the rising status of STEM raise questions about who is really best-positioned to gain from the trend. Students and parents are told that STEM offers the best path towards a well-paying job. Democrats and Republicans fight over which party is more pro-STEM, taking for granted that STEM education will drive economic growth. The evidence supporting these assumptions is murky at best. What is clear is that the business leaders and corporate-funded politicians that most stridently support STEM have much to gain from shaping the nation’s educational priorities.
The hype surrounding STEM today makes it seem as if math and science were invented in 2005. What’s really new, though, is the widespread idea our nation is facing what’s often referred to as a “STEM crisis” — a severe shortage of highly-skilled workers in the tech sector. Political leaders, from President Barack Obama to Governor Paul LePage, have presented STEM education as the critical factor in the future of the nation’s economy. Corporate business leaders, from Bill Gates to executives of Maine-based tech companies, say they are desperate for skilled workers and urge vast increases in public funding for STEM education.
Policymakers and school administrators have responded to the rhetoric. Obama recently set a goal for the nation to educate 10,000 new US engineers each year and train 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2020. LePage’s administration has aimed to increase by 15 percent the number of Maine students interested in seeking STEM-related careers. Locally, the Portland School District recently announced it will offer a STEM endorsement on high school diplomas in addition to after-school STEM programs and partnerships with local technology and engineering companies.
But as an increasing share of education funding flows to STEM, the current jobs market flies in the face of claims about the lack of qualified workers. Typically, a shortage of skilled workers in a field leads to rising wages as companies compete with each other to attract employees. That hasn’t happened. According to a 2013 study by the Washington, DC-based Economic Policy Institute, salaries for jobs in many STEM fields, while higher than other professions, have remained essentially stagnant for more than a decade. And many recent graduates with STEM degrees face difficulty finding jobs while publicly-funded scientific institutions and large corporations, such as Boeing and IBM, lay off thousands of STEM workers. What’s more, the projected growth of STEM jobs in Maine remains very low compared to many other well-paying professions.
The shaky economic case for STEM education has led supporters of the trend to rely on misleading, if not outright false, statistics. A commonly-cited statistic in Maine, for example, is that “in the next decade one in seven new Maine jobs will be in STEM-related areas.” But this claim, currently on the Maine Department of Education’s website and echoed in media reports, can be traced to an outdated study that contains no projections beyond 2014.