Trump vs. Obama: Presidential strides in STEM education
Both administrations introduced strategies to boost STEM education across the U.S. How do they compare — and have they been effective?
The Trump administration formally released a report in December detailing the White House’s five-year vision on boosting STEM education in the U.S. The administration's report follows in the footsteps of President Barack Obama, whose administration announced an initial STEM strategy in 2009, and outlines a vision “for a future where all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the U.S. will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation, and employment.”
The Obama White House took a similar stance in its 2013 report, writing: “Maintaining America’s historical preeminence in the STEM fields will require a concerted and inclusive effort to ensure that the STEM workforce is equipped with the skills and training needed to excel in these fields.”
The Trump and Obama plans and degrees of focus on STEM education align in some areas and don’t in others. So, how do these strategies compare, and is either of them effective?
“I was struck by the amazing similarity [between them],” Tracy Gray, managing director at the American Institutes for Research, told Education Dive. “But, as with any of these plans, the devil is in the details.”
‘People are finally focused on this’
The Trump administration’s five-year vision emphasizes tactics including strategic partnerships with schools, colleges and universities, and other community resources; trans-disciplinary activities for students; digital literacy and transparency; and accountability in boosting U.S. students’ STEM education opportunities.
To make this happen, the White House's approach involves three central tactics: stronger foundations for STEM literacy, more diversity and equity within STEM and using additional programs, such as internships, to prepare students for the STEM workforce. The plan invokes efforts from multiple executive agencies, ranging from the Department of Education (ED) to the State Department, and signals a push toward getting more Americans to pursue STEM fields.
James Brown, executive director of the D.C. nonprofit STEM Education Coalition, said when he read the Trump plan, he was “pleased.” The tone, he said, lays out the challenges in the STEM world and tries to assign duties to entities to address them.
“And it does largely reflect the inputs of our community in the process to develop it,” Brown told Education Dive, noting that this wasn’t the case with the Obama administration’s STEM initiative rollout. “The [Trump] White House met with groups like us in late spring of this year and synthesized them into the points that show up.”
The Trump administration hasn’t always been consistent about its stance on STEM education, though. Its first 2018 budget request moved to slash $166 million in funding for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) program.
However, in 2017, the president not only signed laws promoting women in STEM, but also signed a memorandum directing ED to spend $200 million per year on competitive grants promoting STEM. And the department followed through — this November, it said $279 million had been awarded in discretionary grants embracing the sciences.
Gray said the five-year plan was another step in the right direction, as it underscored the importance of STEM education, addressing inclusion of all learners and emphasizing its ties to all careers.
“The timing is great, on the one hand, in that people are finally focused on this,” she said.
‘Put their money where their mouth was’
Back in 2013, the Obama administration unveiled its five-year strategic plan, which involved partnerships between school districts and universities, local businesses and other community groups, funding to connect districts with STEM resources, and the creation of a STEM teacher corps program.
Among the plan’s goals were developing a well-qualified, diverse U.S. STEM workforce that can lead innovation, providing American students with access to high-quality STEM learning and creating federal, evidence-based STEM education programs that hit priority areas.
Sound familiar? Gray thought so. If anything, Trump’s plan is “an extension of what happened under Obama,” she said.
Others, like Brown, said there were still a few disparities between the two. Most notably, he said, Trump’s plan aligns with his administration’s economic focus, while Obama’s involved more of the private sector and nongovernmental organizations.
Gray noted that during Obama’s presidency, his administration “put their money where their mouth was” in kick-starting STEM programs, measuring their success and revealing what still needed improvement. These programs included the 2009 Educate to Innovate campaign, which included more than $260 million in investments, a list of partnerships, and goals to give underrepresented groups more access to STEM education and career opportunities.
And the former administration touted its accomplishments — securing $1 billion in private investment for STEM education and preparing tens of thousands of math and science teachers, to name a few — but acknowledged “there remains work to be done.”
Trump’s and Obama’s plans look similar on paper — which isn’t necessarily bad, Gray said — but a strong federal commitment is necessary for the Trump White House to keep raising the bar, Gray said.
“I don’t want to minimize that they issued this directive and said we need to continue the push for STEM,” Gray said. “But unless you’ve got a commitment to providing districts with the funds to offer the courses and hire the teachers, well beyond saying, ‘STEM is a good thing and we support it,’ I don’t know what we have.”
‘A big if’
Not everyone was impressed by the Trump STEM vision. Or Obama’s or President George W. Bush’s either.
“I think these things are basically meaningless documents — you take the same basic reasonable insights and try to dress them up,” said Rick Hess, education policy studies director at the American Enterprise Institute. “There’s some value in saying, ‘Hey, this is important,’ and it gets a cycle of stories about this, which is fine … [but] this is more about public relations and messaging than stuff that’s really going to change the lives of students.”
While it’s been years since the release of Obama’s STEM initiative, the effects of Trump's plan remain to be seen. At the end of the day, Hess said, the effectiveness of a plan like this “depends [on] how good you think Washington is at helping on these counts,” beyond issuing big documents with “happy words that everyone can get behind.”
Brown said the success of Trump’s strategy relies on whether the White House can get federal agencies to spend more money on STEM education. Others, like Gray, note that the administration tends to air on the side of giving states more power, which also requires a degree of federal commitment.
“They really need to say that as a government, we’re committed not just to the concept, but we’re going to put financial resources toward making this happen — not just that this is a state responsibility," she said. "Otherwise, it’s a train going nowhere very quickly."
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