I have written extensively about the U.S.’s urgent need to retool its workforce to compete in the Global Knowledge Economy of the 21st century, and of the particularly critical need for a whole new level of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) literacy. Although this need must be addressed at all education levels, from primary school through universities and continually through one’s career, the biggest and most pressing gap lies in the formative years, from elementary school through high school.
Just how big is this gap? U.S. 15-year olds now rank a dismal 21st in the world in science and 25th in math. It is similarly drawing up the bottom in high school completion, where the 2006 PISA study ranks it 21st out of 27 OECD countries. Meanwhile, at a time when virtually every knowledge-based career requires strong IT skills, most U.S. middle and high school computer classes focus on teaching rudimentary Windows, word processing and spreadsheet usage, rather than the value of IT in all disciplines and occupations. But our educational prowess relative to OECD countries is one thing. We are now even getting our STEM educational clocks cleaned by China, where:
- Math, science (not to speak of foreign language) skills are the primary focus of the educational system, from elementary school, all the way through universities;
- IT is integrated into math and other high school curricula, rather than taught as a standalone set of skills;
- College STEM graduation rates far exceed those in the U.S.; and even where
- Adult literacy rates (over 90%) are higher than in the U.S. (86%).
In reality, how could we hope for much more when most teachers graduate in the bottom quartile of their college classes, only 39% of 8th grade math teachers and 7% of science teachers even majored in the subjects they are teaching and children devote so little time to homework. Compare this again with China, where, all math and science teachers must have degrees in these subjects, school years are longer and students devote twice as many hours to homework as their U.S. counterparts.
Although this is all pretty grim, we are seeing progress. And it is coming from the most unlikely of places—the U.S. government. While every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower has tried to create a national education program, virtually every effort has failed in Congress. Sure, George W. Bush managed to get No Child Left Behind through Congress, the law allows every state to set their own standards. And, 15 states that fell short of the law’s performance requirements found a creative way of staying in compliance—they simply lowered the scores required to demonstrate proficiency.
Although a couple of multistate organizations, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officials, are making some progress in creating a voluntary set of common standards for Math and English education, Barack Obama shares his predecessor’s view of the need for national action. However, he understands (all too well) the perils of relying on Congress. He, therefore, gave Arne Duncan, his Education Secretary, unprecedented power and an unprecedented pool of money ($4.35 billion) to incent states to pursue innovative strategies for recruiting, credentialing, rewarding, and retaining teachers. Although this Race to the Top initiative will cover all subjects, it is particularly skewed to STEM education.
Obama would like to do much more to address many of the fundamental deficiencies of the current educational system. Yet he recognizes the formidable political, fiscal and practical constraints to enacting true educational reform. Therefore, he is attempting to enlist the private sector to fund and drive additional programs.
Enlisting Private Sector Help
In November, OBama announced a new campaign to encourage businesses and not-for-profit organizations to help enhance science, technology, engineering and math education in middle and high schools. This Educate to Innovate program is focused on encouraging companies and non-profits to contribute $250 million worth of time, money and volunteers to create extracurricular education programs to expand children’s interest in and knowledge of STEM. As reported in the New York Times, some of the first of what are expected to grow into a larger number of commitments include:
- Discovery Communications is sponsoring two hours of commercial-free, after-school Science Channel programming to be targeted at middle school students;
- Science and engineering societies’ commitments to provide volunteers to work with children;
- PBS will incorporate a science focus into two years of Sesame Street programming;
- Time Warner Cable, which has committed to devoting 80% of all its philanthropic efforts to science and math education, will also create and promote a web site that will provide a searchable directory of local science activities;
- Sony will donate 1,000 PlayStation 3 game consoles and LittleBigPlanet educational games to libraries and community organizations and fund a $300,000 contest to incent game designers to develop science- and math-based games that Sony will distribute free; and
- The Jack D. Hidary and MacArthur Foundations are working with the National Science Teachers Association and American Chemical Society to launch a website (http://www.nationallabday.org/) to create a Web site that will match volunteer scientists with teachers looking for assistance in teaching specific areas.
Intel, which already has one of the largest and most active STEM education initiatives in the world (which I’ll discuss in some future blogs), is playing a particularly central role in this imitative. It is launching a ten-year, $200 million cash and in-kind campaign to help train more than 100,000 U.S. math and science teachers and is committing its own employees to volunteer 100,000 hours to improving STEM education. Its former chairman, Craig Barrett, will also work with prominent technology CEOs and former astronaut Sally Ride, to encourage other corporations and foundations to fund and participate in efforts to improve STEM education.
Promising First Steps
The bad news is that U.S. educational system (especially elementary, middle and high school) has dug itself into a huge hole. It is not vaguely prepared to teach the types of skills that tomorrow’s workers will need to compete in an increasingly global economy that is being redefined by information and communications technology.
The good news is that virtually everybody—private sector and public sector and Democrat and Republican—recognizes these deficiencies and the urgency of addressing them. George W. Bush—with solid bipartisan support—took an important first step (No Child Left Behind) in addressing these needs. Barack Obama, without waiting for Congress, has taken two more. Race to the Top provides schools with compelling incentives to reinvent policies and processes. Educate to Innovate enlists the private sector to help identify, enable and fund some of these changes. Both focus on those areas that are in greatest need of change—how middle and high school students are exposed to and taught math and science.
Ideally, politicians of both parties will again come together to acknowledge this critical need and address it in a comprehensive and enlightened manner. But even if not, Educate to Innovate, in particular, sets an important precedent as:
- An effort to encourage and focus the efforts of the private sector (especially information companies and foundations) around a common goal.
This will hopefully be the first of many initiatives in which government attempts to mobilize the private sector to address critical societal issues.