What is to be Done?
The scientific and academic community has been warning about the crisis in math and science education for years; our schools are not producing the scientists, engineers and mathematicians necessary for this country to maintain its science and technological preeminence, thereby putting our global economic prominence at risk.
Look at what is happening around us. In 2007, foreigners accounted for 46% of all PhDs in Math and Science granted by American universities. This is the discipline that fuels innovation in the semiconductor industry. In 2009, the average US mathematics literacy score for a 15 year old student was below the average of all 34 OECD (Organized for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, a group of the world’s most advanced economies. In 2009, the average US science literary score for a 15 year old student was average among the 34 OECD countries. We are not preparing and inspiring our youngsters to enter the scientific pipeline early.
Our universities do a terrific job with students once they arrive, but our K-12 efforts have not been as effective as they need to be. The United States has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the industrialized world; 3 of every 10 ninth graders do not graduate on time.
Our performance on math and science tests, while comparable to other industrialized nations in the fourth grade, decline by the 12th grade, where we rank near the bottom. Virginia does somewhat better than the nation as a whole, but only 38% of our eighth graders were at or above proficiency in math. Part of the problem is that we do not have enough qualified math and science teachers; only 52% of our math teachers and 74% of our science teachers in Virginia actually majored in the courses that they teach. Without action, this statistic is likely to worsen as experienced teachers retire and are not replaced with others trained in these disciplines.
Our investment in science and research and development is lagging by comparison to other nations. Singapore is engaged in a multibillion-dollar effort to make it the leader in stem-cell and health-related research, and is recruiting scientists from all over the world, including the U.S. In the next year, Saudi Arabia will launch a new research university with an endowment of $10 billion (by comparison, UVa’s endowment now stands at $3.1 billion). Our high technology trade balance has shifted from a positive of $33 billion in 1990 to a negative of $132 billion in 2006 and the United States is now ranked 7th in the world in its research and development spending as a percentage of GDP.
So what do we do?
In 2005, TAP2015, a coalition of 15 prominent business organizations and the Business Roundtable, audaciously announced a goal of doubling the number of math, science, and technological bachelor’s degrees by 2015; a recent review of their efforts indicate some progress but not enough to meet the goal.
In 2007, Congress passed the America Competes Act, a $33.6 billion commitment to research and teacher recruitment. In Virginia, we are continuing to advance proposals that will hopefully contribute to a national solution. Using a $500,000 grant from the National Governors Association, the Commonwealth has established six STEM Career and Technical Academies in different areas of the state, serving over 1000 students each year and utilizing public-private partnerships to build capacity in math and science-related fields.
We are also searching for ways to recruit and retain excellent teachers of math and science in the middle schools who can inspire youngsters to explore these fields as professions. Last year, math and science teachers were able to take advantage of expanded funding of the Virginia Teaching Scholarship Loan Forgiveness Program, a program which grants loans of up to $3,720 which are then forgiven if a teacher teaches in a high-need field or area of the state. Over 200 new math and science teachers have taken advantage of this program since 2004.
To continue to address this crisis, I support:
- Increasing rewards for those who complete the rigorous and respected National Teacher Certification Program and consider differential pay linked to excellence in results;
- Using matching grants to spur regional efforts that upgrade the skills and knowledge of teachers who teach or can teach in these disciplines; and
- Looking at ways to license new teachers who have math, science, and engineering experience that they can bring into the classroom without necessarily returning to school to obtain a specialized degree.