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Wired School Buses, Advance STEM Invitations, and Unemployment Worries: This Month in Education Research

Five ideas and solutions for reimagining American schools as the nation pulls itself out of the pandemic

We need to “reimagine education.”

As America’s schools pull themselves out of the covid-19 pandemic, we hear this phrase constantly. But it lacks specificity. Reimagine how? What? By whom? For whom? With schools resuming in-person instruction—and plotting what comes next—educators and policymakers are looking for creative solutions to meet students’ needs. And while there are a lot of ideas, money, and research aimed at the issue, the challenge is vast and can be difficult to navigate.

This column is a monthly space where I’ll highlight proposed ideas, interesting pilots, research, state or district solutions, and other innovations that provide insight into what a reimagined education system could look like. Some ideas are already showing results, other have yet to be tested, and none are one-size-fits-all solutions. But they demonstrate the breadth and depth of new energy in the education world, post-pandemic.

This month, I look at funding for buses with Wi-Fi, bridging and bonding social capital, and increasing access to STEM coursework.

Creating a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom Encourages Students to take Advanced Coursework

For its recently released report “Shut Out: Why Black and Latino Students are Under-Enrolled in AP STEM Courses,” the Education Trust surveyed 200,000 students from 184 schools. It found that while 2 in 5 say they really enjoy STEM courses and desire to go to college, less than 3% enroll in AP STEM courses. The report outlines barriers to entry, including reliance on single indicators of readiness like GPA or test scores, funding inequities, and educator bias. But the authors found that creating a positive school climate, by fostering a “college-going culture” and a sense of belonging, and hiring diverse teachers helps diversify access to advanced courses and improve student outcomes.

The report also provides recommendations for federal, state, and school/district policymakers. One state recommendation that stuck out to me—which also aligns with our work at College Board—is eliminating cost barriers to courses. Covering the course costs allows more students to take the classes without inducing a financial burden.

Graphic of three yellow boxes in a row with Finding #1, Finding #2, and Finding #3 written in them, from left to right

The Education Trust

The report also provides recommendations for federal, state, and school/district policymakers. One state recommendation that stuck out to me—which also aligns with our work at College Board—is eliminating cost barriers to courses. Covering the course costs allows more students to take the classes without inducing a financial burden.

Outfitting IRL Magic School Buses

During the pandemic, buses brought school to students. The vehicles were equipped with antennae or hotspots so students without connectivity could get their homework done while learning remotely. Now, the FCC wants to make it even easier for students to do their work when they’re on the bus. On May 11, FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal that would allow schools to use federal E-rate funding to outfit school buses with Wi-Fi. (The E-rate program has provided funds to schools that need help with internet connectivity since 1996.) Building out this capability was covered during the pandemic through the Emergency Connectivity Fund; the FCC proposal could make the funding permanent.

Boy and girl (5-7) on school bus with laptop computer, side view

Dave Nagel/Getty Images

Sure, giving students Wi-Fi on the bus will make it easier to disappear into social media. But this move would more importantly address the “homework gap.” Students who don’t have the resources to complete their online work at home would be able to finish it on their way to and from school, and even to and from after school activities like sports.

Uncertain Causes For—And Implications Of—Unusually High Unemployment Among Bachelor’s Degree Recipients

Every year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics produces the “College Enrollment and Work Activity of High School Graduates” report. As the title suggests, the agency’s data highlight a variety of trends in college enrollment and the labor force. One of the most interesting, which was also highlighted by Dan Bauman in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the unemployment rates for recent graduates (ages 20-29) with associate, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees. As of October 2021, their unemployment rates were 4.5%, 13.1%, and 2.6%, respectively. Interestingly, the report also shows that the pandemic led to a smaller group of students deciding to go to college at all.

Line chart titled "Recently Earned Associate and Graduate Degrees Led to Jobs. Bachelor's Degree? Not So Much." With three lines, in yellow (advanced degrees), blue (associate degrees), and dashed red (bachelor's degrees) graphing data from Oct 17 to Oct 21

Chronicle of Higher Education

Visit the Chronicle of Higher Education story, linked in the text above, to access an interactive version of this chart.

The markedly higher unemployment number for bachelor’s degree recipients stands out. The report doesn’t comment on why attendees of 4-year colleges are currently struggling to find jobs at much higher rates than their technical and community college and graduate school peers. One suggestion is that it’s a temporary byproduct of our tight labor market and the pandemic. Even so, as fewer people decide to go to college, and associate degrees are competitive in the workforce, policy makers and educators should continue considering how to expand options for high school graduates through programs like Louisiana’s Fast Forward program (which I discussed last month), employer apprenticeship programs, and more.

Large-Scale Promise for Improving Education Outcomes Through Social Capital Found in Small-Scale Organizations

As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited above demonstrates, students are facing new kinds of challenges as they transition from high school to a postsecondary pathway. One way to help them is social capital. That’s the finding of a new Brookings report, “Who You Know: Relationships, networks, and social capital in boosting opportunity for young Americans.” It defines social capital as consisting of “the network of relationships that provide support and/or opportunities to individuals,” and it can be bonding (within communities) or bridging (across groups). The report’s authors explain how social capital can improve educational outcomes and highlight the importance of peers, families, teachers, and counselors as students decide to attend college. They focus particularly on four case studies of organizations that use social capital to increase college going: Matriculate, College Match, Emerge, and Thrive Scholars. While these programs have different scales and geographical focus areas, they do have one consistent factor: they all offer intensive advising to students as they transition from high school to college. Participating students build relationships with mentors, other students, and learn about a variety of colleges.

Bar chart titled "Figure 1. How social capital gives girls an edge in college enrollment" with three blue bars charting "Demographics + female," "Demographics + female + social capital," and "Demographics + female + social capital + own GPA"

Economic Studies at Brookings

The report demonstrates how difficult it is to assess social capital thanks to a lack of consistent definitions and measures. The four programs the report focuses on show promising results—many of their students enter college and point to the program for their success—but there is a lack of formal evaluation. The authors encourage policy makers and practitioners to create a stronger evidence base to guide social capital work going forward.

Expanded Access to Computer Science in High School Leads to More STEM Majors

Computer science education has been traditionally dominated by White men, even though STEM education is a proven pathway to good tech sector jobs. College Board’s AP Computer Science Principles (CSP) course was launched in 2016 to address this disparity. In December 2020, College Board conducted a study to assess progress toward expanding and diversifying the computer science field. It found that not only are AP CSP students more diverse, they are more likely to major in STEM in college. In fact, students who take AP CSP are three times more likely to declare a CS major at the start of college than their peers who did not take the course. This difference is similarly large for female, Black, Hispanic, and first-generation college students.

Bar chart titled "Figure 2: The Percentage of CSP and Non-CSP Students Who Major in CS" graphing results (from left) for Overall, Male, Female, Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, and First Generation students

College Board

While the gap is closing, there’s still work to be done to diversify who takes CS classes—particularly advanced courses, as Ed Trust’s new research, referenced at the top of this article, proves. This College Board data reiterates the importance of expanding the invitation to computer science—particularly when students are considering future careers.