Why aren’t high achievers enrolling in STEM majors?
In a recent City Journal article, Sol Stern advances another argument that schools are shortchanging high-achieving learners. I’m with Stern to a point. We agree that the accountability provisions of NCLB have been too focused on moving students above proficiency.
Stern goes on to argue that the lack of focus on high achievers is directly linked to a decline in the number of engineers, and that we are near the bottom of the developed world in the number of computer science, mathematics, engineering, and science graduates. He believes that the solution is to create more elite high schools for gifted students, particularly high schools that focus on math and science.
I’m not innately opposed to this, but the argument implies that high schools are not graduating high achievers who are prepared for success in these fields. So here are the facts.
According to NCES, in the period between 1982 and 2005 the proportion of high school students enrolling in calculus increased from 5% to 13.6% of the graduating population. The proportion enrolled in AP calculus also increased from 1.6% to 9.2%. On the science side of the equation, the proportion of graduates taking Physics increased from 15% to 32.7% of the population, while AP Physics enrollment also increased from 1.2% to 5.3%. In other words enrollment in the two courses most critical for students intending to major in either science or engineering has more than doubled over the past 23 years.
AP data is the best data available after 2005, and it shows that enrollment in the two AP calculus tests has increased by nearly over a third between 2005 and 2011. While scores on the test have remained relatively stable, they are slightly higher on the Calculus AB exam and slightly lower on Calculus BC. Enrollment in the physics examinations is also up by about one-third and scores have again remained stable.
In the meantime, according to David Brussoud enrollment in college calculus courses is on a slow decline.
That leads to an interesting question. If we’re graduating double the proportion of students who are presumably prepared to pursue these majors, why aren’t they enrolling in these majors when they get to college? I think Stern’s argument is a bit presumptive, why would one think that creating elite math and science academies would dramatically increase the production of scientists and engineers? Wouldn’t their most likely students be kids who are already interested in these subjects (or perhaps kids of pushy parents who make them apply)?
In my mind, the more logical place to start is with the universities themselves. They are getting more students prepared to pursue these majors, the majors generally pay pretty well, so why aren’t students responding? I know of two storylines that make some sense. One is that other majors are easier, and while elite kids work hard to get into their first choice college, that work ethic may not carry over to their choice of major. A second is that the quality of teaching in these majors is uneven, particularly in the gateway courses, and that many potential majors have a bad experience in the classroom that sours them on the major. Based on my n of two (two daughters, one majoring in engineering, and one not) each storyline works for one. Brussoud, a mathematics professor, has his own take and I suspect he’s working from a larger sample.
Specialized high schools make a lot of sense for some kids, and they shouldn’t be considered purely havens for the gifted. But if we’re really interested in graduating more scientists and engineers, let’s take a serious look at what universities are doing with the increasing number of graduates who are ready to pursue these majors rather than pass the entire blame back to high schools.