‘Do Not Underestimate’ the Power of High-Quality STEM Teachers, Bill Clinton Says

By Madeline Will — April 26, 2017 5 min read
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New York, N.Y.

Speaking on an aircraft carrier to an audience of educators, industry officials, and philanthropists at the 6th annual partner summit for 100Kin10, President Bill Clinton cracked jokes about ants and human genomes and spoke of his passion for science, technology, engineering, and math education.

The national nonprofit to recruit, prepare, and support 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021 is a “stunning success story,” Clinton said on Tuesday. The group, which has a network of nearly 300 public and private organizations that have collectively pledged more than $90 million, is on track to reach its goal, with more than 40,000 new STEM teachers already trained at the halfway point.

“Who would have thought that Americans can just make up their mind that we needed more STEM teachers [and] they needed to know what they were talking about?” Clinton said, praising the fact that the group had done this work without receiving any funding from Congress. “This is a really big deal, because one, it’ll help us keep America in the future business. Two, it’ll help us find win-win solutions instead of win-lose solutions for our problems. And three, it proves that diverse groups make greater decisions than homogenous ones. ... And it proves that even under the most adverse circumstances, good things can happen.”

Clinton’s speech capped the day of “steal-this” sessions, speakers, and discussion opportunities in the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Containers of Play-Doh and Legos were on every table. About 10 percent of 260 attendees were classroom teachers.

Good STEM teachers, Clinton said, can change the world. He recounted a time during his presidency when he visited Morehead State University in the Appalachian region of Kentucky to see their nanotechnology program. He met a young man “with a hillbilly accent” who was working on a mini computer satellite and impressed Clinton with his knowledge of outer space and technology.

“Every time you put another qualified STEM teacher in the classroom in an inner-city school; with people whose parents’ first language is not English; in an African-American neighhborhood where nobody has gone to college in forever—anywhere you do this, there’s somebody like that young man in eastern Kentucky whose mind works just fine, thank you very much, and craves understanding and opportunity,” Clinton said.

He added that educators can help overcome the “tribalism that is born of fear—fear that the old ways aren’t there anymore, the new ways aren’t working for me, and I can’t imagine that tomorrow can be better than today. You have to get rid of that, and show that’s not so.”

“It’s the beginning of a whole new set of adventures,” he continued, speaking of new scientific discoveries. “What we have to do is empower people: A, to make the best possible decisions for themselves, their families, their communities, and the future; and B, not to do something really, really dumb ... like allowing climate change to spin out of control or any of these national security threats. But it begins with the teachers—the people who know something we don’t, who care enough to give up much greater incomes doing other things to make sure we learn it.”

That was about the most overtly political Clinton’s speech got, although other speakers at the conference mentioned President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to federal science programs, including the National Institutes of Health.

While 100Kin10 was born out of President Barack Obama’s 2011 call for recruiting, training, and retaining 100,000 more STEM teachers within a decade, the nonprofit’s executive director and co-founder Talia Milgrom-Elcott stresses the bipartisan nature of the work.

Trump’s team reached out to 100Kin10 a few weeks ago to invite Milgrom-Elcott to join a listening session about teaching quality in May, which she will attend. That will be the group’s first interaction with the Trump administration, which has pushed for more girls to engage in STEM careers but has also proposed cuts to NASA’s education programs.

“I think that work with the new administration is still unfolding,” Milgrom-Elcott said in an interview. “What we try to do always, especially since the election, is try to ... find the things that need to be done or the things that need to be said, but really emphasize the things that need to get done—not just to talk, but to do, to act. [Then we] have a shot at, even in this hyper-partisan moment, transcending politics and [finding] the places that are meaningful, that matter for kids and teachers and the planet, where we can focus our work.”

Now, as 100Kin10 prepares to see its goal realized in four years, the organization must prepare to transition to its second life. Milgrom-Elcott said the group is starting to think of how it can keep the momentum going past the original 10 years, starting with plans to “case-study the heck out of” its work creating this extensive network.

The organization has identified seven “grand challenges” facing the recruitment and retention of STEM teachers, including that teaching lacks prestige, professional development isn’t satisfying STEM teachers’ needs, and that teachers are underprepared to effectively teach STEM subjects. These problems will not be solved in four years, Milgrom-Elcott said.

“But we will, I hope, have made meaningful progress against them—measurable and meaningful progress—and have organizations around the country focused on them and ideally, schools and school districts. ... That work will need to continue,” she said. “How does this organization prepare to pivot from getting to the 100,000 goal to actually getting at the bedrock, the cracks in the bedrock, the fissures that need to be repaired, so we can build on the strong foundation?”

In Clinton’s speech, he urged the partners to keep working on its mission.

“Remember, if you beat [the goal] by one, that’s 30 or 40 more people a year who got a chance to have a different future,” he said. “Remember, even one more above the goal can change the whole future of the country.”

Photo provided by 100Kin10

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.