Advisory Panel to Offer Obama Ideas for Advancing STEM Education

By Erik W. Robelen — September 14, 2010 5 min read
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The co-chairman of a White House advisory panel yesterday provided a sneak preview of a forthcoming report that will recommend to President Obama a series of new federal steps to advance education in the STEM disciplines.

They include developing a “master teacher corps” that recognizes and rewards strong teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math; supporting the creation of more STEM-focused schools; and providing increased opportunities to inspire in students a passion for those subject areas.

At the same time, the report from the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology will highlight the ways in which federal policy has fallen short.

“We also conclude that the federal government, historically, over the last quarter century, has really lacked a coherent strategy and sufficient leadership capacity for STEM education,” said Eric Lander, the co-chairman of the council, speaking at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There are programs galore all over federal agencies, ... but it’s hard to say it’s part of any coherent strategy. It’s hard to say that many of them have been historically targeted toward the kind of catalytic efforts that have the potential to truly transform STEM education.”

The report on K-12 education from the 20-member advisory panel, which includes leading experts in science, engineering, and other fields, is expected out later this month.

Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and a leader in human-genome research, said the two key “organizing principles” in the upcoming report are improving the preparation of U.S. students in the STEM fields and inspiring them.

“We also have to focus on inspiration, that everyone is inspired enough to learn something about STEM, and many of them inspired enough to go into STEM,” he told those gathered at the Brookings office in Washington for a panel discussion on STEM education.

Lander proceeded to highlight some recommendations to be included in the report, focused on a variety of issues, from standards and teacher quality to the uses of technology.

• Standards: The panel will urge the federal government to support the common standards in mathematics, as well as science standards currently under development (through a process spearheaded by the National Research Council). Lander said the federal government could be helpful in a number of ways, such as providing support to the states in aligning professional development to new curricula and developing new assessments.

• Teachers: The report will emphasize that teachers need both deep content knowledge and deep understanding of the pedagogy of teaching STEM. “We think the federal government should be supporting programs that prepare teachers who have those two skills,” he said.

In addition, he said the report will emphasize both recognizing and rewarding strong STEM teachers. “We need to reward the top 5 percent or so of teachers in this country, ... recognize them as a national treasure, as a master teachers’ corps.”

• Technology: “We need to be able to drive innovation, scale up dissemination,” he said. “We need to be able to build the kind of technology platforms that make it easy for people to write whole-course instructional materials that include lectures and adaptive problem sets and professional-development materials.”

To accomplish that, he said, “we need funding at the federal level, and there needs to be an appropriate entity able to [disburse] such funding, and we make recommendations about what type of entity would be needed and the magnitude that might be needed to support such work.”

• Inspiring Students: “We need to create opportunities for inspiration,” Lander said. “As much as standards matter, nonstandards matter, too. ... We have lots of money for after-school programs in this country, and very few of them target anything having to do with STEM. We have lots of other kinds of wonderful programs, fabrication labs, for example, math contests, science contests.”

• STEM-Themed Schools: “We have in this country about a hundred STEM-focused schools,” Lander said. “They tend to exist at the high school level, not at the elementary or even middle school level. They tend not to exist in poorer neighborhoods.” He suggested that federal funds available for school turnarounds or magnet schools could be used to support creating more such schools.

• Federal Leadership: “Finally, we need strong leadership. We need the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation working together,” he said. “They need more capacity. ... We need mechanisms for coordination across the federal government.”

Also speaking at the event, Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT, said the United States is failing to take adequate steps to ensure a strong supply of high-quality teachers in the STEM fields, noting that some of “our competitor countries” are doing a far better job in terms of recruiting, training, retaining, compensating, and “celebrating” such teachers.

She noted that many MIT graduates find it difficult to choose K-12 teaching as a career.

“While a small number of MIT graduates each year do decide to become teachers, it’s a pretty tough decision for them,” she said. “These careers are far less celebrated than the other careers that are open to them, with their backgrounds in science and engineering,” and typically pay a lot less. She noted that last year, the average starting salary for MIT graduates was $67,000. “This is the starting salary. And yet, as recently as 2006-2007, the median salary, median career salary for K-12 teachers was $51,000.”

For his part, U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who chairs the House Science and Technology Committee, echoed some of the concerns Lander mentioned about the federal role in improving STEM education.

“Right now, there’s really no coordination” across federal agencies, he said. “So we’re not getting the best bang for the buck.”

That said, he noted that legislation his chamber passed earlier this year to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act includes some new measures aimed at improving such federal coordination. (For more analysis, check out this blog item.)

Meanwhile, a key Senate panel this summer approved its own version of the reauthorization bill, but it has yet to see final action in the Senate. During the event yesterday, Chairman Gordon indicated his concern about the situation.

“We have passed the reauthorization with some improvements in the House, and now it’s stuck in the Senate,” he said, urging those attending the Brookings event to get in touch with leading senators to encourage that chamber to finish its work.

“Tell them it is important to move the reauthorization of America COMPETES, as well as to follow that with funding,” he said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.