As we head into the second decade of the 21st century, two vexing policy questions stand out not only in the U.S. but in countries around the world: How do we produce more students with strong preparation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), along with the habits of mind vital for a 21st-century workforce? And, what can be done to close widening income and social mobility gaps?

Although seemingly unrelated, we can address both questions by transforming the way we teach science. A new breed of schools, known as inclusive STEM-focused high schools (ISHSs), are making remarkable progress in tearing down the walls of traditional high school education. Rather than focusing solely on students who are gifted and talented, these schools recruit a broad swath of students who choose to attend a STEM high school. They are attracting students from populations that are underrepresented in STEM professions: women, Hispanics and African-Americans, and include enrollees from low-income families as well as pupils who are the first in their families to attend college. And they pave the way for entry into the STEM workforce: The number of STEM jobs is increasing and they offer higher salaries and wider career choices than many other kinds of work.

Since 2010 Pres. Barack Obama and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have used the bully pulpit to encourage the proliferation of public high schools that focus on STEM education and target students from underrepresented groups. Although no one knows how many such schools exist in the U.S., a reasonable estimate is around 900. There is a new proposed federal budget to increase their numbers. Still, the high schools have largely been grassroots collaborations on the local level supported by business, industry, institutions of higher education and foundations. Some states (Texas, North Carolina and Ohio) have gone further, building ISHSs into their state education plans, and other states are currently following suit.

The growth and considerable enthusiasm behind STEM-focused schools notwithstanding, there is little research on how they work or what they have in common. My colleagues (Tara Behrend, Erin Peters Burton and Barbara Means) and I are leading a study that will help illuminate the traits that make STEM high schools successful and provide insights into their potential for scale-up. We focused on a small set of “exemplar,” or demonstrably successful, schools with high proportions of students from underrepresented groups. We chose the schools based on several factors, including recommendations from experts and high standardized test scores as well as attendance and graduation rates.

The eight schools are all college preparatory schools of choice—public and public charters—with student populations ranging from 300 to 600. These schools included “early college” high schools with a STEM focus (that offered both college and high school credits to students); tech-savvy schools that relied entirely on project-based learning (an instructional practice emphasizing student production of knowledge via projects and research); and career/technical education high schools that prepared students for careers such as agriculture or medicine through early experiences in those fields.

After analyzing the data and writing each case we found that four components stood out as consistently prominent across all the schools: a broad and deep curriculum designed for all students with little tracking or ability grouping (meaning that most students get the same high quality learning experiences in all classes); a teaching staff with advanced content knowledge; a mission-focused administrative structure with a flattened hierarchy that invited collaboration with and among teachers and students; and supports for underrepresented students, such as advisories with personalized college planning, tutoring or summer research programs on college campuses. In addition, cross-case analyses revealed other important components not on the original list: positive school culture (marked by rituals and traditions that celebrate student accomplishment, teacher innovation, parental commitment and a shared ethos of caring, concern and commitment to helping students learn); dynamic, personalized assessment systems; emphasis on the world of work; and deliberate fostering of learning experiences that develop initiative, self-regulation, persistence and collaboration.

More research is needed. Barbara Means of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International and colleagues (I am a co-principal investigator on this study) are conducting a longitudinal study comparing outcomes of ISHSs with those of non-STEM–focused high schools in three states. Early results are encouraging but the study won’t be complete for two years.

STEM-focused high schools are important because they constitute the first U.S. science and mathematics reform that requires whole-school transformation rather than tinkering with peripheral components of an outmoded educational system or serving just a small, select segment of the public school population. The advent of ISHSs is exciting because they not only provide access to students underserved by the current education system but also find ways to support these students in ways that traditional schools often do not. High school students need not just a rigorous course of study to prepare them for college majors but also meaningful encounters with the world of work that can reveal the range of possibilities open to them. They need a clear view of college pathways and how to navigate them, including financial aid. They need firsthand experiences with research and opportunities to interact with professionals in order to develop skills, confidence and social capital. Equally important, the U.S. and other countries need such changes in their systems of education to make opportunities more widely available to all, and change notions about who “does” STEM. In this way we can help solve the twin problems of increasing the number of qualified professionals while shrinking the social mobility and income gaps that threaten to upend our economies and the nature of our social systems.

Exemplar STEM High Schools included in The George Washington University study:

  • Manor New Technology High School; Manor, Texas
  • Wayne School of Engineering; Goldsboro, N.C.
  • Dozier–Libbey Medical High School; Antioch, Calif.
  • Denver School of Science and Technology: Stapleton High School; Denver
  • Urban Science Academy; West Roxbury, Mass.
  • Metro Early College High School; Columbus, Ohio
  • The Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High; San Diego
  • Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences; Chicago

Sharon J. Lynch is a professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.