STEM is one of the most rewarding career paths available today. It’s a fast-growing field packed full of opportunities and high-paying jobs, and will undoubtedly continue to grow in scope and importance in the years to come.
For young learners with a passion for math and science, the future is bright, but while some students have plenty of support, guidance, and encouragement as they begin their STEM journey, many others aren’t as fortunate.
Despite the proliferation of STEM careers and fields of study, we continue to face persistent challenges in ensuring that these opportunities are available to all students.
According to the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the average mathematics scores for 17-year-olds have been stagnant since 1973. Even more concerning is the difference in average NAEP mathematics scores between Black and white students, and white and Hispanic 9- and 13-year-old student: Between 17 and 28 points.
Too few students, particularly those in underrepresented groups, are on a pathway where they can achieve at high levels.
In this post, we’ll take a look at why this “opportunity gap” exists. We’ll also explain why it’s so important for educators and school districts to do whatever we can to close it, ensuring students from all backgrounds are encouraged and empowered to be part of the STEM field.
What Is the Opportunity Gap in Education?
The opportunity gap in schools refers to the inequitable distribution of access to learning resources, tools, and opportunities.
The origins of the STEM opportunity gap can be seen at many levels of our education system. Examples include low levels of school funding in certain areas, low household income preventing students from accessing learning materials at home, inconsistent teaching programs, and more.
Unfortunately, these issues often occur in areas with a higher population of students of color. This adds to the wide range of historical, economic, and racial disadvantages facing these student groups.
The opportunity gap isn't something we can solve overnight, but educators can still do quite a bit to make STEM more inclusive and encourage young learners from all backgrounds to pursue subjects in science and math.
Why Do We Use Opportunity Gap vs. Achievement Gap?
In the past, many educators and administrators referred to the academic opportunity gap using another term — the achievement gap.
When considering the achievement gap vs. opportunity gap, the former term has fallen out of favor, largely due to the discouraging and unfair connotations the phrase implies.
Educators are rejecting placing blame on low-income students for their academic performance struggles (especially in comparison to affluent classmates) due to a reframing of disadvantaged students' challenges.
What Causes the Opportunity Gap?
Instead of looking at demographic differences in academic success and describing them as a disparity in achievement, educational experts are instead describing this phenomenon as an opportunity gap.
This shift is due to the acknowledgment that lower-income students are far less likely to have access to supplemental learning tools and opportunities than their high-income peers.
Disadvantaged students are also more likely to face additional challenges that impact their academic performance, such as speaking English as a second language or living in rural areas with poor internet access.
Absenteeism and poverty also represent significant barriers to learning opportunities and resources.
A report from Johns Hopkins University placed the national number of chronically absent students between five and seven and a half million, or 10 to 15% of the national student body.
And while just 6% of children who never experienced poverty will drop out of high school, that number grows almost four times for students that face poverty even temporarily.
While these challenges do lead to measurable outcome differences between student demographics, such as standardized test scores, university attendance rates, and overall academic performance, framing these discrepanciesas a difference in achievement rather than a disparity in learning opportunities is as unfair as it is inaccurate.
Why We Need to Make Education More Inclusive
Creating inclusive learning environments is crucial to closing the opportunity gap.
Inclusive education provides better learning opportunities for all students by supporting higher levels of active engagement in classroom activities.
Inclusive learning environments also encourage disadvantaged students to feel a sense of belonging, security, and community that is crucial for healthy social development and long-term academic success.
Increasing equity and inclusivity in education also teaches lessons that extend beyond the classroom.
As exclusive educational practices and policies reinforce stigmatization and marginalization of disadvantaged groups, inclusive classroom experiences can help dissolve socio-economic, racial, and cultural barriers that lead to inclusivity and equity challenges in politics, the workplace, and society as a whole.
Why School Districts Should Support STEM Learning for Low-Income Students
The STEM field has exploded in size over the last few decades. STEM employment has grown by 79% since 1990, and computer jobs have grown by 338% during that same period.
STEM careers don’t just have higher salaries compared to other jobs — they’re also seeing more rapid salary growth. According to the Winter Salary Survey by NACE, starting salaries in STEM fields like engineering, computer science, and math are growing much faster than in other career fields like social sciences.
This means that students who are able to pursue STEM can look forward to a future where they will increasingly earn more money (on average) than those who choose other careers.
Students who are not provided with the opportunities that allow them to access STEM careers are shut out of valuable opportunities. When these opportunities are denied, all too often along racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines, existing and already troubling income gaps grow wider.
By failing to give students from all backgrounds the opportunity to succeed in STEM, we as a society are contributing to these ever-widening income gaps.
Closing the Opportunity Gap with Supplemental Learning
To give every student the means to succeed in STEM, we need to think about ways school districts can supplement their learning and provide the “just-in-time supports” that will allow them to access grade-level material.
According to Nova Southeastern University, “Supplemental materials can provide instructors a way to fill in perceived gaps within the prescribed instructional materials and can offer instructors additional approaches to motivate students. Complementary supplemental learning materials can also aid instructors with meeting the diverse needs of all learners.“
At Yup, that’s our goal. Our student-friendly platform is a unique on-demand math teacher multiplier that provides unlimited one-on-one High-Dosage Tutoring. Our expert tutors provide real-time guidance and feedback to brush up on challenging topics and encourage appropriate skill mastery.
This helps fill in what they might have missed in the classroom, allowing students from all backgrounds to access rich educational resources, guidance, and support.
Our tutoring program emphasizes positive feedback and praise when students display strong effort as well as perseverance in the face of academic adversity to encourage a healthy and positive relationship with both school and learning.
Our personalized tutoring services are available to help students 24/7, extending access to learning tools and opportunities beyond the typical classroom hours. Our tutors also follow an evidence-based Teaching Framework heavily influenced by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM.)
We use a question-based pedagogy that is designed to help students attain a deeper understanding of concepts and skills through dialogue and critical problem-solving.
Our tutors eschew rote memorization techniques and instead leverage scaffolded questioning, real-world examples, and visual aids to encourage conceptual understanding and procedural fluency.
Our student-paced learning platform can also be conveniently integrated into day-to-day classroom activities, giving students access to targeted test preparation and on-demand High-Dosage tutoring.
This easy integration provides a path to improved academic performance without adding to the heavy workload many educators juggle.
Our Yup Dashboard also streamlines progress tracking by providing real-time access to student transcripts, allowing teachers to quickly and easily identify struggling students and provide additional support with challenging concepts or skills.
By supplementing traditional classroom learning with extra one-on-one support, driven by intuitive and accessible technology, we hope to level the playing field in STEM and allow a more diverse range of students to start thriving in these subjects and career paths.
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