NETP16 and Future Ready: Closing the Digital Use Divide through STEM Magnet School Leadership

STEM magnet schools are suffering from a lack of diversity in their student bodies.

Office of Ed Tech
Mar 4, 2016 · 5 min read

In 2013, I graduated from one of the founding institutions of the National Consortium of Specialized STEM Schools (NCSSS).

Author Ji Soo Song at U.S. Department of Education

As a top-ranking STEM magnet that pulls students from across Northern Virginia, the school is “committed to empowering students, teachers, and communities to meet the demands of a technologically advanced world.” Every aspect of the student experience at the school reflects this vision — from its large array of sophisticated equipment to its experienced faculty, many of whom hold doctorate degrees. Students have numerous opportunities to showcase their application of such technology through competitions, research symposiums, and mentorship from local STEM professionals.

My former high school is rare among American high schools, most of which are not equitably resourced to offer similar STEM opportunities. For example, according to CSEdWeek, only 5% of American high schools are equipped to offer Advanced Placement Computer Science.

While I enjoyed my four years there, racially and socioeconomically, my high school was a homogenous community.

Approximately 8% of students within the district the school serves live below the federal poverty line, yet this same group makes up only 2% of the student body. Black/African-American and Hispanic/Latino families account for, respectively, 9% and 16% of the district’s population. However, these groups together make up only 3% of my former high school’s students. My experience is not unique. This disparity also exists in similar STEM magnet schools across the country. Tim Gott, former president of the NCSSS writes, “[W]e value diversity greatly but have not found the magic answer to fully meet the needs of groups that are underrepresented in our schools.”

These percentages, as well as 2015 and 2008 studies on student diversity in conversion and competitive-admissions magnets, indicate that the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in STEM magnet programs is indeed a national issue.

Recent figures also suggest a discouraging lack of minority representation in STEM professions.

When STEM magnet schools are not ethnically diverse, we run the risk of further decreasing the diversity of future STEM professionals.

This is the “digital use divide” highlighted by the recently published 2016 National Education Technology Plan (NETP16). With its focus on equity, active use, and collaborative leadership, NETP16 lays out a vision for technology in education that opens paths to STEM education to all students.

Closing the Digital Use Divide

Nurturing early and continued interest in STEM for all students through engaging activities — involvement with an extracurricular robotics team, for example — is crucial for recruiting students into specialized magnet schools.

Digital Use Divide from the 2016 National Education Technology Plan

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation reports that 3.4 million K-12 students come from families earning below national median income while scoring in the top academic quartile according to the NELS and ECLS-K. However, due to lack of continued academic support, their chances of remaining high achievers throughout their school careers is lower than those of their wealthier counterparts, thus making it less likely that they would apply or be accepted to a STEM magnet program.

“When a student applies at the 9th grade level, that’s too late,” said Principal Kim D. Moore of George S. Middleton High School (another magnet member of the NCSSS) in EdWeek.

If we are to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity in STEM magnet schools, outreach efforts must provide both early and continued academic support for students from historically-disadvantaged backgrounds. Luckily, STEM magnet schools are uniquely suited to spearhead this work by connecting with those schools feeding into their programs. Leveraging their faculties’ expertise, STEM schools can build early learning programs and partnerships using resources such as the Tinkering Fundamentals MOOC from San Francisco’s Exploratorium.

Fundamentals of Tinkering — Course Overview from The Tinkering Studio

These STEM schools are also well-positioned to utilize frameworks like the Learning Circles piloted by P2PU and the Chicago Public Library to build professional capacity or the MIT Media Lab’s work around Family Creative Learning. In short, they can build professional capacity while constructing equitable pipelines that help feed creative, curious students of all backgrounds into their schools.

A Frame for Tackling the Issue

NETP16 includes a new section on leadership, which points to the Future Ready initiative as a pathway for establishing a clear vision for what learning and teaching can be. More than 2,000 school district superintendents have signed the Future Ready District Pledge, agreeing to, among other points, ensure equitable access to educational technology. Improving the racial and socioeconomic diversity profiles of their STEM magnet schools is one way in which Future Ready superintendents can meet this goal. As of this writing, more than half of NCSSS’ magnet schools belong to pledge districts.

NETP16 and Future Ready also call on districts to collaboratively lead with stakeholders to promote equitable access to educational technology. Imagine the power of including families, community organizations, and students in conversations in establishing a vision of more equitable access to resources and experiences powered by technology. Imagine what can become possible when all STEM magnet programs across the country are truly representative of the communities they serve.

While the problem is immediate, the work to solve it is underway. At the national level, efforts like those of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans are striving to improve diversity in STEM by providing additional STEM engagement opportunities for African-American students. America’s philanthropic community is committing to improving equity as well. For example, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awarded a total of $500,000 to six schools to improve their outreach programs by providing student mentoring programs, STEM challenges, and professional development opportunities for teachers.

Through the work of Future Ready superintendents, working collaboratively with STEM magnet school leaders, partnership organizations, and other districts, we can improve STEM access and interest for all students. I look forward to returning to campus for my 10-year reunion and hope to see a school that reflects the brilliant diversity of the community in which I grew up.


Ji Soo Song is a junior at Dartmouth College majoring in biology with a minor in human development & education. He interned with the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education in the winter of 2015–2016.

Office of Ed Tech

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The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.

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