Opinion

STEM Education Is a Civil-Rights Issue

Advocating for equal access to STEM education isn’t merely a new feel-good fad.

Wade Henderson is the President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil rights and human rights organizations.
National Journal
Wade Henderson
See more stories about...
Wade Henderson
June 10, 2014, 7:40 a.m.

New data show­ing that Google’s pool of em­ploy­ees is 2 per­cent black, 3 per­cent His­pan­ic, and 30 per­cent fe­male are get­ting lots of at­ten­tion. While Google should be cred­ited for be­ing the first tech com­pany to re­lease its num­bers, the lack of di­versity at com­pan­ies like Google is just a symp­tom of our na­tion’s fail­ure to provide equal ac­cess to the kinds of sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, and math classes (of­ten called STEM) that pre­pare stu­dents for highly skilled, highly tech­nic­al jobs and ca­reers.

It’s time to ex­am­ine where and how we are los­ing so many chil­dren along the K-16 STEM pipeline and to ac­cel­er­ate pro­gress in clos­ing both op­por­tun­ity and achieve­ment gaps. We can’t be­gin to level the play­ing field without do­ing so.

Re­cent data from the Col­lege Board and the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s Civil Rights Data Col­lec­tion make clear that we’re send­ing our chil­dren of col­or to schools that are not pre­par­ing them for our high-tech eco­nomy. In 2013, no Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents took the Ad­vanced Place­ment ex­am in com­puter sci­ence in 11 state. The same was true for Latino stu­dents in eight states. Shame­fully, one-quarter of high schools with the highest per­cent­age of black and Latino stu­dents don’t even of­fer Al­gebra II, and one-third of them don’t of­fer chem­istry. How can we pos­sibly ex­pect our chil­dren to com­pete ef­fect­ively in the glob­al job mar­ket without tak­ing chem­istry?

The prob­lem isn’t lim­ited to the na­tion’s rap­idly ex­pand­ing minor­ity pop­u­la­tion. In 2013, only 20 per­cent of AP com­puter sci­ence test-takers were fe­male. Wo­men already com­prise the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents on our col­lege cam­puses and also make up about 46 per­cent of the work­force. Why then do they rep­res­ent less than 20 per­cent of bach­el­or’s de­grees awar­ded in fields like com­puter sci­ence and en­gin­eer­ing, and hold less than one-quarter of STEM jobs?

These fig­ures are un­con­scion­able. Un­til we start to mean­ing­fully ad­dress this crisis, we will con­tin­ue to ex­clude people of col­or and wo­men from the new high-skilled eco­nomy.

Em­ploy­ment in STEM-re­lated oc­cu­pa­tions is pro­jec­ted to cre­ate about 1 mil­lion jobs — ex­pand­ing the sec­tor to in­clude more than 9 mil­lion po­s­i­tions — between 2012 and 2022, ac­cord­ing to the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics. Fed­er­al data also show that work­ers in STEM oc­cu­pa­tions earned a me­di­an an­nu­al wage that was more than double the me­di­an wage for all work­ers in May 2013. And even though a gender wage gap still ex­ists in STEM oc­cu­pa­tions, it is smal­ler than the gender wage gap in oth­er fields.

In short: Ac­cess to STEM jobs is an on-ramp to high­er than av­er­age wages in ex­pand­ing fields where jobs are ex­pec­ted to be plen­ti­ful.

In late May, the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence Edu­ca­tion Fund joined with the Edu­ca­tion­al Test­ing Ser­vice to con­vene a sym­posi­um at the Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences to dis­cuss equal ac­cess to STEM edu­ca­tion as a crit­ic­al civil-rights con­cern and to ex­am­ine ways to ad­dress the dis­par­it­ies. At the same time that ex­perts from a range of sec­tors at our sym­posi­um ac­know­ledged STEM in­equit­ies, bright young minds were gath­er­ing at the White House for its an­nu­al sci­ence fair — an event that this year placed spe­cial fo­cus on wo­men and girls who are ex­cel­ling in STEM.

Pres­id­ent Obama also an­nounced sev­er­al up­com­ing ini­ti­at­ives, in­clud­ing a $35 mil­lion Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment com­pet­i­tion, an ex­pan­sion of STEM Ameri­Corps. It will provide STEM learn­ing op­por­tun­it­ies for 18,000 low-in­come stu­dents this sum­mer, and a na­tion­al STEM ment­or­ing ef­fort in­volving tech­no­logy and me­dia com­pan­ies, non­profits, and oth­ers work­ing to con­nect more stu­dents to STEM.

These are im­port­ant steps. But we also need pro­grams like Race to the Top for Equity and Op­por­tun­ity, which would in­vest $300 mil­lion in proven ap­proaches across the K-12 pipeline, such as pla­cing our best teach­ers in high-need schools, ex­pand­ing ac­cess to AP and col­lege-prep classes, and equal­iz­ing spend­ing between every school dis­trict’s rich and poor schools.

The new Race to the Top would also fund pos­it­ive be­ha­vi­or sup­ports and fair dis­cip­line policies, and help to fin­ance ex­pan­ded learn­ing hours. Dur­ing her key­note ad­dress at our May sym­posi­um, Cath­er­ine Lhamon, the as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary at Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s Of­fice for Civil Rights, called this ini­ti­at­ive the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s highest pri­or­ity in the budget.

It’s this type of change — change in­ten­ded to knock down sys­tem­ic edu­ca­tion­al and eco­nom­ic bar­ri­ers — that should be ad­op­ted by states and school dis­tricts across the coun­try. The policies and fund­ing that will do this work na­tion­ally should also rank among the top pri­or­it­ies of Con­gress.

Ad­voc­at­ing for STEM edu­ca­tion and equal ac­cess to it isn’t merely a new feel-good fad. It’s crit­ic­al that we make sure that its op­por­tun­it­ies are equally avail­able to every child so that they may be full par­ti­cipants in our dy­nam­ic and con­stantly chan­ging world.

Wade Hende­r­son is the pres­id­ent and CEO of the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Hu­man Rights, a co­ali­tion of more than 200 na­tion­al civil-rights and hu­man-rights or­gan­iz­a­tions.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×