Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Systems


In the two years since its release, the Opportunity Equation has promoted the goal of excellent, equitable STEM education for all students. This update covers major developments and highlights questions and priorities for the future. MORE



Experts in science education discuss the emerging opportunities of the NRC's "A Framework for K-12 Science Education." MORE


Connecting to Your Work

How can you mobilize to help transform schools and systems to maximize student potential? Read recommended actions from The Opportunity Equation report. MORE

The New York Hall of Science’s “Explainer” Program

This science education program offers students career-building opportunities in a museum setting–and helps create pathways to advanced career opportunities in STEM. MORE

In a transformed system, all students leave high school fully prepared for success in college and careers, with many more students prepared for success in STEM studies and careers.MORE


Statway: New Pathways Through College Math

This innovative attempt to solve a systemic problem in math—how to teach developmental math to students who enter college underprepared for college-level work—could transform math education and make higher level math more accessible to students for whom it is a 'barrier course' to graduation. MORE

STEM-Focused Schools: Designed to Support Higher Levels of Math and Science Achievement

Schools designed around science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics can engage students in rich and rigorous STEM learning, set high expectations for their participation and performance, prepare them for success in college and careers, and encourage the pursuit of advanced STEM careers. What STEM-focused schools models are out there, what are these schools doing differently, and what impact are they having? What lessons can they teach us about designing schools differently—putting STEM at the center of the education enterprise—to support the higher levels of math and science achievement that our students and our nation need? What else can education innovators—in all types of schools—do to bring about real change and heighten expectations for STEM learning?

Andrés A. Alonso, Ed.D.
CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools

Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) has created a portfolio of quality school choices so that every student in Baltimore City has the opportunity to attend a school that reflects his or her interests within reasonable geographic proximity. STEM-focused schools are an important part of this portfolio. City Schools has already opened 16 STEM-focused schools, including one turnaround school. Based on their success in engaging students in rigorous academics, we plan to expand the number of STEM-focused schools available to Baltimore’s students.

We set high expectations for all students, and all of our STEM-focused schools are designed to prepare students for success in both college and careers, regardless of past academic performance. Beginning in middle school, students visit college campuses regularly to help reinforce this goal and experience the college environment first-hand. As part of City Schools’ Learning to Work program, work-based, STEM-focused programs and internships with organizations in the private and public sectors are available as students progress to higher grades. These out-of-school experiences expose those students participating in the Learning to Work program to a range of advanced STEM careers. 

As a result of this focus on both college-readiness and career preparation, all of our STEM-focused schools graduate students who are prepared to enter college, and all students graduate with the same diploma. In addition, students who chose to do so can graduate with industry-certified credentials. Our newest STEM-focused school, The Green Street Academy, will eventually prepare students in grades 6 through 12 in one of six STEM Career and Technology pathways. Choices include computer-based options such as the Gateway to Technology pathway leading middle school students to Project Lead the Way (pre-engineering) and Green Construction Trades. Our Bluford Drew Jemison schools have a strong robotics component, and the REACH! Partnership School provides three pathways for students to graduate with high school diplomas and certification in health and construction careers.

City Schools’ STEM experience has taught us that students want to be engaged in learning that is interesting and rigorous, and STEM provides authentic learning that connects math and science with technology and engineering. It is not surprising that many more of our schools are choosing to add more rigorous, sequenced STEM pathways. In fact, we have created a Pre-K to 8 STEM Center, a school that starts students on these pathways as early as possible. 

"Ultimately, the “real world,” hands-on aspect of STEM-focused schools resonates with many students because it underscores the connection between school work and their future interests and careers."

The success of STEM-focused schools depends heavily on several factors, including strong partnerships with universities and industry. Postsecondary and industry partners help City Schools develop long-range goals and plans that in turn help the district develop and implement Career and Technology Education pathways – in particular for turnaround work. The partners who are members of our Local Advisory Council (LAC) and Program Advisory Council (PAC) help us formulate the program design, suggesting additions, deletions, or revisions of Career and Technical Education programs based on current and future workforce development needs in Maryland. Our LAC members share industry-specific research and data that support program implementation and assist the Learning to Work Office in conducting needs assessments and evaluations of Career and Technical Education programs in Baltimore City.  We have articulation agreements with post-secondary institutions that provide articulated credits for students. In addition, our postsecondary partners provide professional development for teachers and staff. Our industry partners provide work experiences for students and technical/professional development for staff; they also sponsor student events and donate resources for the classroom. 

Other critical factors in the success of our STEM-focused schools include extended school days and school years (and associated funding sources), mentoring and a highly effective teaching staff. More than half of our STEM schools use a grade 6-12 structure, which keeps students engaged with the same faculty and advisors throughout their secondary school experience, minimizing the dips in attendance and enrollment that often occur between middle and high school.

Continuous professional development, both system-wide and at individual schools, is essential. In model science and mathematics classrooms, teachers observe exemplary instruction by content and grade-level ‘Teacher Leaders’, who also provide follow-up support to teachers in their classrooms. In addition, professional learning communities in which teachers meet monthly to discuss content, review best teaching practices, and plan engaging activities for students are organized by grade level and content area.

We will use the Common Core standards to raise expectations among both students and educators in all of our schools. The science, mathematics, and technology curricula will be aligned to the Common Core through a phased-in approach beginning in 2010-11 with full implementation by 2013-14. The curriculum for elementary and middle grades will include authentic tasks that combine knowledge and skills into project-based learning units. 

Ultimately, the “real world,” hands-on aspect of STEM-focused schools resonates with many students because it underscores the connection between school work and their future interests and careers. The increased engagement is evidenced in the schools’ popularity: of the five high schools in most demand, four are STEM-focused.  

Larry Rosenstock
CEO & Founder, High Tech High

I believe the key to the success of High Tech High’s (HTH) network of nine schools is our willingness to rethink every aspect of the educational enterprise – the who, what, where, when and how of our roles, our design, and our actions. Every aspect, that is, except the “why”: to prepare our students for success. Our students come to us with varying levels of academic performance, and with only a two percent attrition rate and every student who graduates from HTH going on to college, it’s clear that our approach is highly effective for a diverse population.

A STEM focus is central to our design and success, but we also integrate the arts (often referred to as STEAM) to prepare students to participate in a global economy and help them to focus on their futures both in college and in careers. Preparation is intended to develop both the “head and the hand,” meaning that students are equipped with both the intellectual curiosity to keep learning and the tangible skills that make them marketable. We integrate technical and academic education and place a high value on both, and we do this with a diverse student population that is selected by a blind zip-code based lottery. Our schools focus on four principles that mirror this belief and philosophy of integration: personalization, adult-world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher-as-designer.

We provide a rigorous education and prepare students to enter college and the workforce by creating learning environments where they act like scientists, mathematicians, and engineers: identifying questions of real value to the world, designing ways to explore and address those questions, collaborating with others within and across disciplines, and presenting their work to authentic audiences. We do this through project-based work in which students don’t just learn about math and science, they take on the roles of these professionals.

This type of pedagogy mirrors the environments students will encounter in college and in STEM careers. Deep, project-based learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is particularly effective in exposing students to specific tasks that they will encounter in future careers and allows us to assess students’ work in a truly meaningful way. If we are to prepare students for the knowledge economy, we must measure that which is worth measuring. Rather than reducing learning to a multiple choice test, we use assessments that measure students' abilities to analyze and transform information. Students present their project-based work to members of the community, including project-specific industry representatives. A recent initiative called “Get Bent” engaged seniors in using three-dimensional geometry, calculus and physics to explain design of chairs, lamps and other common items.

"We provide a rigorous education and prepare students to enter college and the workforce by creating learning environments where they act like scientists, mathematicians, and engineers: identifying questions of real value to the world, designing ways to explore and address those questions, collaborating with others within and across disciplines, and presenting their work to authentic audiences."

Teacher preparation and professional development are integral to our design and success, so much so that we have embedded a graduate school of education within our K-12 community. The graduate school, which is open to internal and external educators, prepares reflective practitioner-leaders to work with colleagues and communities to develop innovative, authentic, and rigorous learning environments. It offers an easily-accessible resource for teachers who wish to deepen their practice and build their inquiry and leadership skills. Coursework and the design and implementation of an action research project lead candidates to pursue essential questions relevant to their practice and apply their learning in their own classrooms and schools. It is of essential importance for all teachers to be STEM-capable but also critical that they understand and know how to implement our design principles and experience and believe in project-based learning. Our graduate students experience the kind of learning that reflects our design principles and are then better able to create these environments for their students.

I believe that the primary reason that every one of our graduates is admitted to college is that we don’t separate and ‘track’ students. Special education is offered during lunch, and there are no advanced placement classes. Instead we have a two tiered syllabus for each class – honors level or regular level – and the students themselves choose which path to purse, with the option to reselect each semester. Over 70 percent choose honors which helps them get weighted averages. Our college advisors also play an important role in supporting both students and families. They offer home visits, ensuring that parents are engaged in the college application process and that every child is on track. Plus, these college advisors all have two critical characteristics in common: they worked in selective college admissions and are the first members of their families to go to college. They know what it takes to get admitted and students and parents know the advisors understand their concerns and questions.

We also strive to create a college-going culture. Freshman view juniors prepare for the SAT; juniors see seniors head to college. Explicit transparency helps younger students understand the process so that when the time comes, the process is expected and natural, not foreign.  We also take students of every grade to visit colleges every year, and arrange for HTH alumni to return from college to meet with current students, another opportunity that allows students to see that college is a reality for kids just like them.

Currently we enroll about 3,800 students: 60 percent are racial or ethnic minorities and 25 percent are low-income. Furthermore, 40 percent of HTH college graduates major in STEM, compared to 17 percent of U.S. students.

We hope to expand the number of students we serve through an aggressive approach to growth. We have pursued a statewide charter, meaning that we are chartered by the state and not the district. This has allowed us to focus on big-picture negotiations, avoid tensions with individual districts and led to smoother charter management operations. In addition the graduate school, we currently have a primary school, three middle schools and five high schools, however with this statewide charter, we are authorized to open a total of 48 schools throughout California.

Robin Marcus
Program Director for STEM Education

The North Carolina New Schools Project (NCNSP) is a statewide public-private partnership that sparks and supports innovation in secondary schools and works to prepare every student for college, careers, and life in the 21st century. Launched in 2003, NCNSP has partnered with local school districts to develop and support 114 innovative high schools (72 early college high schools—more than 1/3 of the national total—and 42 re-designed high schools). Among these are approximately 20 schools with an emphasis on STEM, where high quality curriculum materials, inquiry-and problem-based instruction, school culture, and community partnerships make these disciplines more accessible and meaningful to students.

The organization’s Design Principles recognize that rigorous, academic-focused schools keep students on track for both college and careers. This focus, coupled with strong student-teacher relationships and exceptional school leadership, are considered the essential foundation for success. The design principles guide the work of partner schools to provide a strong foundation for change, recognizing that focused and academically rigorous schools go beyond compliance with accountability edicts and academics as isolated ends in themselves. The model supports treating teachers as professionals and partners in creating a culture of innovation, commitment, collaborative inquiry and trust, and it encourages school faculties to build strong personal relationships with students and parents. Teachers are encouraged and expected to take calculated risks in their own learning as adults, and to reflect on what they thoughtfully believe will engage students in achieving higher standards that are more tightly aligned to success in college, careers, and the future.

Private funds and state Mathematics and Science Partnership grants provide a broad range of STEM-specific support services through NCNSP.  Math and science teachers participate in professional development and receive instructional materials and coaching to implement high quality, research-based math and science curricula and approaches to instruction, including Core-Plus Mathematics, Science Education for Public Understanding Program’s Science and Global Issues Biology, GeoDE Institute’s Investigations in Environmental Science, and Arizona State University’s Modeling Instruction in Science. A seminar series based on the Education Development Center’s Secondary Lenses on Learning further provides school teams with experiences, information, and resources needed to guide them in key areas of school practice known to have an impact on secondary students' mathematical learning.

"Design Principles recognize that rigorous, academic-focused schools keep students on track for both college and careers. This focus, coupled with strong student-teacher relationships and exceptional school leadership, are considered the essential foundation for success."

NCNSP also offers an annual Project-based Learning Conference and Student STEM Symposium, in which student teams present their research and projects to one another, interact with undergraduate researchers, and learn from STEM professionals.  (See video from last year’s Student STEM Symposium:  Students have had the opportunity to participate in Youth Technology Corps summer camps and international competitions that incorporate cultural exchange, technical learning and practice, and service learning, as students work with teams from Chicago and Mexico to refurbish computers to donate in their local communities. NCNSP has partnered with 4-H to support the start up of rookie FIRST Robotics teams, which cultivate collaboration, creativity, and problem solving while also providing students with technical expertise in robot mechanics and computer programming.     

Numerous indicators show that students in the state’s STEM schools are making significant progress towards a common goal of strong readiness for college and career. As a group, STEM-school students achieved a gain of nearly 20 percentage points in 2010 on their passing rate for all state End of Course exams. The state’s overall gain was 8.8 points. Similar strong results were also achieved in Algebra II (27.2 point gain in passing rate for STEM students vs. 12.4 percent for the state) and Biology (21.9 point gain vs. 9.7 points for the state). In addition, students in STEM schools are taking more rigorous math courses, as measured by the percentage of all students enrolled in Algebra II. In STEM schools, 31 percent took the math course in 2009-10 compared to 18 percent of all high school students statewide.  STEM schools also had significantly fewer dropouts in 2008-09, the most recent year for which data is available. While 4.27 percent all North Carolina high school students dropped out in 2008-09, less than 1 percent (0.8 percent) dropped out of STEM schools.

North Carolina’s recently-funded Race to the Top (RttT) proposal offers our established STEM schools further support to introduce students to careers in high-growth STEM areas. Funding for the schools to align with one of the state’s four economic development priority areas (health and life sciences, biotechnology and agriscience, aviation and aeronautics, and energy and sustainability) provides the opportunity to engage, motivate, and prepare students for careers with growing regional and national demand.  It’s important to note that these programs were not conceived with a narrow focus on industry certification requirements, but rather integrate rigorous, STEM-related academic content with meaningful application through problem- and project-based learning. By way of this design, students are engaged in and prepared for careers with high-growth potential.

Since NCNSP’s founding in 2003, our students and teachers have demonstrated that despite any barriers posed by poverty or previous difficulties in school, all students are capable of success. Results on standardized tests are improving and NCNSP schools’ “keeping power” is extremely high. A recent Jobs for the Future report, A Policymakers Guide to Early College Designs cited a combined dropout rate for 97 innovative schools supported by the NCNSP in 2008-09 as 2.96 percent, compared to a statewide rate of 4.27 percent. For the graduating class of 2010, our schools achieved an 83.8 percent graduation rate, compared to the 74.2 percent graduation rate for all high schools in the state. The organization’s future challenges lie in scaffolding the lessons learned in its innovative schools to other schools around the state, in growing and maintaining interest in graduating all students ready for what lies ahead, and in increasing the bandwidth of the organization to provide the wide range of support services required to sustain innovation.