The role of parents and communities in promoting educational achievement is paramount to Arva Rice, CEO of the New York Urban League. In February, the organization published A Parent's Guide to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to provide caregivers with the tools and support to assist children in making good academic choices and to provide encouragement and ultimately increase representation in science and technology jobs. Women and minorities are markedly underrepresented in STEM careers and this is where the New York Urban League historically plays a critical role. The organization has been lowering barriers for blacks and Latinos in hard-to-access career paths in corporate American and union employment for 75 years. The challenges for these same groups in STEM professions are both structural and environmental and involve interventions along institutional pathways and at home.
STEM in American schools has been a priority for the federal government perhaps since the development of a seminal report on the state of American education in 1983, A Nation at Risk. T.H Bell, President Reagan's secretary of Education, commissioned the study to look at America's school system in light of burgeoning globalization and increased technological competition from the Soviet Union and Japan. The commission wrote over 30 years ago that, "Computers and computer-controlled equipment are penetrating every aspect of our lives — homes, factories, and offices. ... Technology is radically transforming a host of other occupations. They include health care, medical science, energy production, food processing, construction, and the building, repair, and maintenance of sophisticated scientific, educational, military, and industrial equipment."
Exhortations to meet the growing need for scientific training in schools have not been met with universal implementation and subsequently a different type of digital divide emerged. According to the U.S. Census, women's representation in STEM careers has increased since the 1970s, though most of that growth occurred between 1970 and 1990. Men are employed at twice their rate. In 2011, 11 percent of the workforce was black, but only 6 percent of the STEM workforce. Similarly, Latinos comprise 15 percent of the workforce but only 7 precent of STEM workers.
Raising more flags, the annual Schott 50-State Report on Public Education and Black Males highlighted the stubbornness of black achievement in math. To be clear, the performance of young black men in America's schools across many variables has improved somewhat due to modest longitudinal gains. But amidst the good news, Schott sees trends that are worrisome. According to the report, although Massachusetts ranks the highest in the percentage of black males performing at or above 8th-grade mathematics, the rate is only 29 percent, compared to white males at 63 percent. The lowest proficiency rate among black males in the country is shared by Alabama, Wisconsin and Michigan at an abysmal 6 percent. The median for black males nationally is 12 percent.
Beyond elementary education, even high schools dedicated to the study of these subjects help close the gap somewhat but students will find, according to one researcher, "chilly environments" for women and minorities. Thus electives or gifted and talented programs at non-STEM schools may provide better pathways through academic and peer supports.
Compelling new data suggest that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) play a substantial role in increasing the number of black who obtain Ph.D.s in STEM. The American Institutes for Research reports that HBCUs account for 3 percent of the nation's college students and contributed 19 percent of the nearly 9 percent of all bachelor's degrees in science and engineering awarded to blacks in 2010. By 2010, approximately 33 percent of all black students who earned bachelor's degrees in mathematics and statistics attended HBCUs. What may put HBCUs at a slight disadvantage in terms of attracting and retaining more students is what the report calls "Low levels of graduate funding and tuition support and high levels of graduate debt."
Sadly, an Obama administration ruling in 2011 that cut Title III monies and overall funding of the Parent Plus Loan Program exacerbated issues around affordability and student debt at these very institutions. Merged cuts in loans, Pell grants and graduate subsidies resulted in overall funding reductions totaling over $300 million.
Despite the bad news, HBCUs demonstrate a clear advantage in the "focus on student supports and their ability to better foster academic and social integration in science and engineering."
Looking ahead, the Northeast Scientific Training Program (NEST) Retreat in 2014 for minorities in STEM careers offered recommendations that seek to promote a social justice component in STEM education; provide specific training to help better explain science to nonscientists; include family members who may be generally supportive but aren't always familiar with research; connect STEM with other disciplines; and encourage early learning, rather than well into graduate school, about the career paths that become available with an advanced STEM degree.
Rice and the New York Urban League feel that these community and parent supports are essential. "We are breaking barriers in STEM. We are committed to this work because it is part of our history, and it is critical to the next generation's success in an information economy," said Rice. She added, "Parents are still great influences in children's lives. ... It is during those critical years that affirmations about being good at math or science are most critical. We want parents to encourage their children to explore careers that they may have never imagined for themselves."
Correction: This piece has been corrected to note the actual date of an Obama administration ruling.
Smikle is a political analyst and adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and the City University of New York's School of Professional Studies.