STEM-ing the Achievement Gap: Looking Beyond the Classroom

Abiola Sulaiman

Discussions on improving student grades, raising high school graduation rates, and increasing post-secondary enrolment often point to student-teacher ratios as a major success factor. The impact of class size on education achievement has been evidenced over time in numerous studies. Of those, Tennessee’s 1985-1989 Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) study is one of the most well known. The five-year study randomly assigned 79 elementary schools, students, and teachers in the U.S. state of Tennessee to small and regular-sized classes – about 15 and 23 students, respectively.

Among its most significant conclusions were that students in classes with a lower student-teacher ratio generally saw higher levels of educational achievement, as they were able to spend their class time more efficiently. The study also revealed that small class sizes had a greater impact on educational achievement in students from low-income households.

However, despite evidence of the negative impacts that high student-teacher ratios have on student success, education policy in Canada and abroad has routinely focused on alternative factors in addressing the ever-present achievement gap between students from low, moderate-income, and affluent households — be it in high school graduating rates, student grades, or otherwise. This has ranged from revamping teacher training to adopting ‘discovery learning’ curriculums. But why is this the case?

Put simply, in today’s rapidly evolving, knowledge-based, and technology driven society, students are increasingly being forced to look beyond the classroom for the learning tools and experience necessary for long-term success. This is particularly true for students from low-income households, who, in term of traditional education, are more likely to be streamed into courses that lack academic rigour.

The use of computers and other smart technologies in conducting daily tasks has been a major part of the Canadian lifestyle since the early 2000s. However, school-aged Canadians today — and of the future – will come to see that not only are daily routines dependent on tech-literacy, but so too is success in both post-secondary education and the labour force. Equipping low-income students with the requisite skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to succeed in the evolving labour force is imperative for Canada’s economic and innovation future. And the key to preparing these students in a world increasingly dominated by technology, as a Globe and Mail article points out, “is a greater collaboration between universities, companies, and government” — and also, with primary education.

The University of Toronto and York University, among various other Canadian post-secondary institutions, currently offer STEM-based workshops and summer camps for elementary school students. However, at a weekly cost ranging from $140 to $270, these initiatives that could help to narrow the educational achievement gap between income groups are out of reach for many low to moderate-income families.

For their part, technology giants Microsoft Canada and Google Canada have recently invested over $40 million towards STEM programs. There is a clear advantage to the corporate financing of STEM-based initiatives: while public schools are generally cash-strapped and confined in their delivery of services by provincial government budgets and priorities, private companies such as Microsoft and Google are able to invest as they wish in the next generation of, for example, software engineers and data analysts.

If elementary schools in low-income areas of Toronto such as Rexdale or Regent Park had the ability to deliver or otherwise access after-school STEM workshops for their students (run by, perhaps, computer science students or graduates), these students would be provided with critical — and critically, equal — opportunities to improve upon STEM literacy from a young age, building what are increasingly key skills in a technology-driven economy and labour force. These workshops could also help to identify opportunities in further education. This could result in an increase in Ontario’s 75 per cent high school graduation rate; in the longer-term, it could help to improve Canada’s poor innovation record.

Increasing the availability and accessibility of STEM programs could also provide key mentorship opportunities, which are a student’s best chance at displacing bad habits, and of improving critical and analytical thinking skills. Youth mentorship is arguably the most underappreciated approach to social investment.

A recent Pathways to Education Canada survey on the educational attainment gap between students in low-income and affluent communities has shown that most Canadians believe that factors such as parental guidance and tutoring should be addressed ahead of student-teacher ratios. STEM literacy initiatives in the form of after school programs or workshops offer the guidance and tutoring parents seek for their children — and whether or not it be for their own corporate gains, both Microsoft and Google Canada clearly understand the long-term implications of engaging and educating the next generation in STEM. Moving forward, corporations, educational institutions, and government must come together to guide the delivery of these programs to build essential skills among students of all socio-economic backgrounds.

Abiola Sulaiman is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He previously completed a Bachelor of Health Studies at York University, where he specialized in health policy analysis and the social determinants of health. Abiola continues to focus on issues surrounding health care policy in Canada, but also has interests in areas of international relations, immigration, and urban policy.