21st Century Budget Cuts 21st Century Skills

by Sean M. McCaffery | Senior Research Assistant | The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education & Resilience 

In May the Trump administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 was released. The proposal calls for a $9.2 billion spending cut to education. Among its provisions is the elimination of the Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers (Kamenet, 2017). Nearly 2 million children attend this program that provides afterschool academic enrichment opportunities for students attending high-poverty and low-income schools. The reason for this removal, according to the administration, is the lack of strong evidence in meeting its objectives (Fessler, 2017). If this proposal were to come to fruition, many outside-of-school-time programs for students would be abolished, including many opportunities for STEM engagement and learning.

However, the empirical evidence available suggest a noteworthy contrast in opinion on 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs). An evaluation conducted between 2014 and 2015, found that close to 1 in 2 regularly attending students improved their grades in math and language arts, close to 2 in 3 improved their homework completion and class participation, and close to 3 in 5 improved their behavior in class (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Congruently, a recent study by The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience at Harvard University and McLean Hospital and the Institute for Measurement, Methodology, Analysis & Policy, examined upwards of 160 after-school programs providing informal STEM education in 11 states to nearly 1,600 students in grades 4 through 12. Findings indicated that 78% of students reported positive gains in STEM interest, 80% in STEM Career Knowledge, and 73% reported gains in feeling that they can do well and succeed at science, or STEM identity, as a result of participating in informal STEM programming (Hinton, 2017). Ostensibly, there is a multitude of benefits that outside-of-school time STEM programs can provide. The threat leveled at the 21st CCLCs becomes compounded when the program’s beneficiaries, the students, are acknowledged.  

The program aims to provide services for low-income students at high-poverty, low performing schools. This translates to disadvantaged students that typically belong to disenfranchised minority groups. Consequently, these students are often without the encouragement, support, exposure to science, and access to STEM enrichment experiences necessary to develop, and sustain early interest, confidence and aspirations in STEM. Indeed, 73% of students attending 21st CCLC programs participate in the Federal Free or Reduced Price Lunch Program, 22% of participants are African-American, 36% are Hispanic/Latino, and 16% have limited English proficiency (Learning Point Associates, 2006; Learning Point Associates, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2016). A study examining about 3,000 low-income and ethnically diverse students attending afterschool programs, including Community Learning Centers, found that students who attended for more than two years gained 20 percentiles in standardized math test scores than students not attending an afterschool program (Vandell, Reisner, & Pierce, 2007).

In a 2017 report published by the National Center for Education Statistics, revealed that from 2013-2014, 57% of bachelor degrees were awarded to females, while 43% were awarded to males. Yet, when solely examining STEM degrees, 35% were awarded to females, and 65% were awarded to males. This pattern was consistent for all racial/ethnic groups. Moreover, Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic, and Pacific Islander students were shown to have received a lower percentage of STEM bachelor degrees than the percentage of students overall (Musu-Gillette, de Brey, McFarland, Hussar, Sonnenberg, & Wilkinson-Flicker, 2017).In fields that are already afflicted by gender, racial, and socioeconomic disparities (Xie, Fang, & Shauman, 2015) we can anticipate that, if approved, these budget cuts will only serve to widen these gaps.

Even with the myriad of evidence that these programs facilitate positive student outcomes and address social disparities, the current administration remains obstinate. This is especially disconcerting given that the imperative position of science in our modern society is seldom doubted. It is this premium we place on science that bolsters our technological innovations and economic growth. Given the powerful link between the United States’ economy and our scientific and technological advances, there has been growing concern that we may be losing our competitive edge. A reason for this may be the widely held belief that STEM education in the U.S. is deficient in both quantity and quality, as well as unequally available across social groups. It was only a few months ago that Ivanka Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited the National Air and Space Museum with a cohort of middle school students extolling the importance of pursuing STEM careers, with Ivanka Trump echoing the statistics that characterize the gender gap in STEM fields (Danilova, 2017). Yet, the actions of this administration contradict the concern that their words express. It seems to me that if we want to Make America Great Again, we may want to reexamine the importance we ascribe to science in our society and how we might ensure equity and access to quality STEM education.


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Flicker, S. (2017). Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2017 (NCES 2017-051). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC. Retrieved [date] from

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U.S. Department of Education. (2016). 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) Overview of the 21st CCLC performance data: 2014- 2015.

Vandell, D. L., Reisner, E. R. & Pierce, K. M. (2007). Outcomes Linked to High-Quality Afterschool Programs: Longitudinal Findings from the Study of Promising Afterschool Programs. Policy Studies Associates, Inc. afterschool/PP%20 Longitudinal%20Findings%20Final%20Report.pdf.

Xie, Y., Fang, M., & Shauman, K. (2015). STEM Education. Annu Rev Sociol, 41, 331-357. doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145659

Image Credit: Juraj Varga from Pixabay | CC0 Creative Commons