The birth of “stem”: crisis, convergence, and the conflation of equity with human capital
Scholars argue that U.S. education policies are not only shaped by a multitude of interests; notions of crisis tend to catalyze them. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was no exception in this regard, yet at the same time, it marked the beginning of a reform era that would greatly alter assessment, teaching, learning, and curricula in the public schools. This study details the genesis of ‘STEM,’ as it emerged through a convergence of interests and crises, and among a series of social dynamics that would guide schooling in the U.S. for the next fifteen years. The specific social dynamics explored include economic fluctuations, venture philanthropy, immigration and national security concerns, and rapid advancements in technology and scientific research between 1990 and 2005. I make the case that the twenty-first century’s first education ‘crisis,’ the rise of venture philanthropy, and the culminating reform movement were born out of a convergence of interests and crises related to 1) battles over immigration and 2) the technological transitions and economic conditions that surrounded the rollover into the year 2000. Amid these changes, concerns about the management and the production of human capital became prioritized for industry, government, and academia, particularly as it related to fields in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering. These pre-existing concerns were then given legitimation and a sense of urgency after the attacks on September 11, 2001, thus necessitating the strengthening of an existing government-industry-academic partnership that could produce more human capital in the U.S. The expressed crises and interests of the federal government, Shirley Jackson (academia), and Eli Broad and Bill Gates (industry) are examined in order to understand the partnership’s driving interests and its inordinate focus on public schools. Through document and critical policy analysis, this narrative provides a social history, detailing how the complexities of the information age became a powerful shaping force that brought forth the birth of ‘STEM’ and the disproportionate discursive and curricular emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in education. This emphasis, I conclude, has not come without consequence to concerns over equity and quality in teaching and learning.