The Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, released a brief on STEM education in the Black Belt region as a part of Black Belt 2022, a series tracking issues impacting the region. The brief detailed that students in Black Belt counties perform significantly lower in STEM programs and testing, compared to non-Black Belt counties. This analysis comes after Alabama was revealed as one of the lowest ranking in STEM education nationwide.
On average, 11 percent of Black Belt students in K-12 scored well enough on state exams to be deemed ‘proficient’, which determines a student’s preparedness post-graduation. This is less than half the proficiency rate of counties outside the Black Belt. Only 22 percent of Black Belt students gained that status in science, versus 36 percent of students in non-Black Belt counties.
Perry County ranked at just over 5 percent of students in proficiency for science, lower than most other parts of the region. This comes at a disadvantage, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that Alabama will see a 10 percent increase in STEM jobs by 2030, a greater increase than in other fields.
Although the Black Belt spends more per student than most counties, funding remains one of many hurdles between academic successes in rural counties. Poverty and a shortage of teachers also remain a significant obstacle. Many Black Belt counties have recently relied on an increase of emergency-certified teachers, with more than 7 percent of educators in the region emergency-certified, five percent higher than other regions in Alabama. A lack of expertise in STEM among these educators also leads to lower test scores among Black Belt students. Lower test scores make accessibility to higher education not only more difficult, but harder to fund when scholarships begin to dissipate. A lack of incentives for educators, combined with low test scores, leaves students ill-prepared for higher education, with 80 percent of STEM teachers in the Black Belt being emergency certified. Ultimately, students could lose access to futures in the areas of STEM as low test scores and lack of scholarships make college out of reach, keeping area students in a cycle of poverty.
Recent policy like the Teaching Excellence and Accountability in Math and Science bill, is one of the few hopes the Black Belt has for incentivizing educators to teach STEM in the region. Student loan forgiveness from the federal government for teachers in low-income areas, is another route to securing more STEM-proficient educators.