An Entire School District Focused on STEM? Yup, That's What This Funder Is Backing

We've written a lot about grants for STEM education at the K-12 level, many coming from corporate funders worried about the long-term supply of skilled workers for their industries. But we've never seen this before: a funder angling to gear a whole school district toward STEM. Is this taking the STEM funding craze too far? And what does it say about the influence of private philanthropy over public education? Read on. 

Since 2012, the Lancaster Independent School District (LISD) in suburban Dallas has shown marked gains in student achievement in science and math, thanks in part to support from the Texas Instruments Foundation in helping create a STEM-focused school district. Now, the funder plans to double down on its investment and nudge those successes a little further.

TI Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dallas-based semiconductor maker Texas Instruments, just announced a grant of $2.2 million to Educate Texas to accelerate the development of a STEM district in LISD. This new grant comes three years after a $4.8 million to Educate Texas to build a STEM district in LISD, using best practices from STEM schools across the state. Educate Texas is a public-private initiative of Dallas-based Communities Foundation of Texas.

Related: Intel Foundation: Grants for Science Education

The initial $4.8 million grant made LISD the first school district in Texas to offer a K-12 STEM curriculum to all of its students. Each of the district's seven elementary campuses has a STEM focus emphasizing one of the following fields: health science technology, engineering, information systems and software design, or global arts communication and entrepreneurship. In the past three years, the proportion of LISD students passing the state standardized test in science has jumped from 49 percent to 61 percent. Math gains, however, have been slower, inching up from 56 percent in 2012 to 58 percent in 2014.

Related - Eight Ways to Land K-12 STEM Funding

TI Foundation is encouraged by the gains and hopes this new grant will accelerate those successes. The new funding supports additional professional development for LISD teachers and counselors; enhances college and career readiness initiatives; supports alignment of LISD curriculum to college readiness standards; supports development of elementary engineering courses; and engages more LISD students in extracurricular activities and STEM camps, such as the district's annual summer STEM camp.

So what should we think about this effort? 

Well, the good news is that the partnership among TI Foundation, Educate Texas, and LISD illustrates some of the best approaches to STEM funding, which we've talked about in the past. It is especially notable for its use of corporate funders and its emphasis on diversity. TI is one of the biggest employers in the Dallas area, and one with a clear interest in a STEM-educated work force. Its engagement here can create clear career tracks that are beneficial to younger workers trying to establish themselves. LISD, in turn, provides a perfect opportunity to engage more students from underrepresented populations in STEM. Located in southern Dallas County, LISD's enrollment is 78 percent African-American and 18 percent Hispanic. More than 80 percent of LISD students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Many STEM funders have been super-focused on bolstering the math and science skills of non-white young people, who will comprise much of tomorrow's work force, and Intel has been among them. 


Educate Texas, meanwhile, has a broad range of partners from government agencies, corporations, and funders. Partners include the Texas Education Agency, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the governor's office and the state legislature, Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation, TI Foundation, Kresge Foundation, IBM, and the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

So all that sounds positive. The cautionary note we'd add is that educators need to be careful not to overemphasize STEM to the extent that other areas get short shrift. As I've argued before, a strong liberal arts education is crucial to cultivating creativity and problem solving skills, which are essential ingredients for success in an economy driven by innovation.

RelatedHas the STEM Funding Craze Gone Too Far?