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.
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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.

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