Joseph S. Villani, Ph.D.
Deputy Executive Director, National School Boards Association
Peyton M. West, Ph.D.
Senior Program Associate, Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and
American Association for the Advancement of Science
There are 14,600 local school boards across the United States, each
independently addressing one of education’s most critical challenges: how to
improve the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Some have led their districts to innovative partnerships and brilliant
solutions; others have made disastrous decisions costing their districts
thousands of dollars. But none of them has had a central place to go to for
resources and support.
Beginning in 2007, a new partnership between the National School Boards
Association (NSBA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS) was created to address this gaping need. The AAAS/NSBA Science,
Mathematics, and Technology Education Project marks the first time a national
science organization has reached out proactively to local school boards, and the
first time that NSBA has directly addressed its constituents’ needs with respect
to STEM subjects. The project’s goal is to determine what school boards want and
need to know about STEM education and to address those needs head-on.
Why Local School Boards?
Educational and professional experts agree that U.S. public school education
in STEM fails to address society’s growing need for literacy in these subjects.
Dire statistics include those from a recent U.S. Department of Labor report
indicating that 60 percent of jobs in the 21st century economy will require
skills that only 20 percent of the workforce currently has—and those skills are
largely related to STEM subjects. In the rush to address various aspects of the
problem, a key player in the debate is often overlooked. The local school board
is ultimately responsible not only for how these subjects are taught in public
schools but also for garnering and ensuring community support for decisions
about public school education. Yet school board members often know very little
about STEM education.
Typically, national science societies and organizations have interacted with
local school boards only when boards institute policies that threaten science
education. There are a number of examples, such as the Dover, Pennsylvania,
school board’s decision to undermine the teaching of evolution by encouraging
students to look into “intelligent design.” While weighing in after these
decisions is important, preventing decisions like this in the first place would
clearly benefit students as well as science education in general. The AAAS/NSBA
partnership believes that helping school boards understand what science is and
why STEM education is so important will help prevent controversial issues from
gaining traction while simultaneously addressing the larger issue of improving
U.S. public STEM education.
Where to Begin?
Each of the U.S. local school boards faces a unique set of issues due to the
highly localized structure of the U.S. public school system. Districts vary
considerably in size, urbanization, and socio-economic variables, and board
members represent a wide array of experience, education, and viewpoints. This
means that a “one size fits all” approach is unlikely to meet all needs. To
address this concern, the AAAS/NSBA partnership, with support from the Kauffman
Foundation, designed a project that focused initially on the Kansas City
metropolitan area. This region, in addition to being the headquarters of the
Kauffman Foundation, encompasses a varied group of school districts that
effectively function as a microcosm of the U.S. school districts in general.
Furthermore, many Kansas City area school districts have had direct experience
with controversies about evolution.
Our first challenge was to discover what school board members and their
communities feel that school boards should know in order to address STEM education. With the help of Public Agenda, we surveyed Kansas City area school
board members, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students, and we
soon had some answers. First was the fact that Kansas City area school board
members do not want to talk about evolution—they’re sick of it, and they have
more important concerns. Instead, school board members are worried about the
state of STEM education in general, and, while wary of being asked to become
“educational experts,” they need more information in order to be effective
community leaders on this issue. These results reflect the larger school board
community’s feelings as well; a survey of school board members from across the
country who attended our session about STEM education at NSBA’s 2007 Annual
Meeting revealed similar concerns.
Meeting Identified Needs
Our next challenge was to meet the needs revealed by our surveys in a way
that would benefit school boards across the country as well as those in Kansas
City. Our solution was to present a seminar for Kansas and Missouri school
boards where experts addressed key questions, and to videotape the seminar and
extract the best clips for dissemination to a broader audience. Accordingly, we
offered the “AAAS/NSBA Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Seminar”
to approximately one hundred Kansas and Missouri school board members in June
2007. We have since been working to adapt the material to create resources for a
broader audience. These will include training materials that state associations
of local school boards can customize to offer boards the opportunity to learn
more about STEM education and a Web site that addresses specific questions board
members have about STEM education. We introduced preliminary iterations of these
resources to the executive directors of the state associations of local school
boards at a reception in February 2008, and they were met with widespread
enthusiasm. The final resources debuted at the annual conference of state
association trainers in June 2008.
The most striking aspect of the AAAS/NSBA partnership has been the
enthusiastic and appreciative response from Kansas City area school board
members. As a result, AAAS is considering how to tailor more of its available
resources to a school board audience, and NSBA is contemplating incorporating STEM education more directly into its own work. This has been the best kind of
partnership—the two organizations have learned from each other, and we are now
inspired to look for ways to continue to work together beyond the scope of the