We know what world-class standards for mathematics and science are. But we have not done a very good job of requiring teachers to learn, understand, and impart those standards.
What was once a dirty little secret is now being exposed: America has dropped the ball on science, mathematics, and technology education. Business leaders recently paid for an ad in major U.S. newspapers calling for strengthened investment in technology education. Time magazine, in a cover story, asked if the United States is falling behind in science. President Bush, in his State of the Union Address in January, pushed a new competitiveness initiative with programs designed to improve math and science education.
The renewed spotlight on math and science began last year with a report from a committee of the National Academies. It had a simple message: Our nation has ignored science and math education for far too long, and a serious investment in technology training at all levels is overdue. We need more physicists, mathematicians, chemists, and other technically skilled people in the pipeline, and we need to recruit more prospective teachers in those disciplines. That process begins with a new emphasis on mathematics and science in elementary and secondary schools.
Working on that report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” I strongly agreed with many of my corporate and university colleagues. We know what world-class standards are for mathematics and science. But we have not done a very good job of requiring teachers to learn, understand, and impart those standards.
Teachers simply cannot teach what they don’t know. We must provide the highest-quality preparation for undergraduates who want to become teachers. Math and science teachers must not receive watered-down training in their disciplines. This is a cross-campus issue and requires schools of education to work far more cooperatively with departments of mathematics and science than ever before. Border wars between campus divisions must be eliminated.
The statistics are troubling. In my state, Maryland, only one student in physical-science education graduated from a higher education institution last year. Just 13 students in chemistry education graduated from a Maryland college or university, and 11 graduated in physics education. At the same time, Maryland schools needed 12 physical-science teachers, 59 chemistry teachers, and 29 physics teachers. The teacher shortage in these areas is not unique to Maryland, a fact that makes recruiting qualified teachers much more difficult.
Such shortages lead directly to the personnel deficiencies that exist in technology-related fields. We need to interest students in math, science, and technology at a younger age, spark their curiosity, and help them understand how they can become part of a future that desperately needs their skills.
Some high schools have figured out new ways to get students excited about rigorous math and science coursework. One great example can be found in schools that have become involved in Project Lead the Way. This pre-engineering program, adopted by more than 40 high schools in Maryland and hundreds nationwide, is a four-year sequence of courses designed to introduce students to the rigor and discipline of engineering before they enter college. That type of fresh thinking is needed in math and science education today.
There are many more good ideas to improve math, science, and technology education. These are some of the proposals that emerged from our National Academies report:
• Annually recruit 10,000 science and math teachers by awarding four-year federal scholarships to potential educators. We provide scholarships for athletes, so why not provide incentives to the top talent in other fields? With 10,000 new, highly qualified teachers, our nation’s schools can better educate 10 million more students at the elementary and secondary levels. Those students will become our technology leaders of the future.
• Strengthen the skills of the 250,000 teachers already on the job. Plenty of professional-development opportunities are available for teachers, but many educators say it is difficult to discern which programs work best. Several programs have strong track records: one- and two-week summer institutes to provide a deeper understanding of scientific theory and practice; master’s-degree programs in science and mathematics to improve the skill levels of middle and high school teachers who focus in those areas; and Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate training for math and science teachers to add more rigor to programs targeting the cream of the nation’s high school students.
We need to build a new model in science and mathematics, and that includes, at its core, developing a creative, qualified teaching force.
• Build a national collection of K-12 curriculum materials in mathematics and science. The U.S. Department of Education should convene a national committee to collect proven K-12 math and science instructional materials and develop new materials where none exist. By making these materials available online for teachers, without charge, our federal government could help jump-start math and science education for school systems without access to state-of-the-art materials.
• Bring more students into AP and IB science and mathematics courses. If more students are drawn into rigorous courses, then more students will enter the pool from which our top colleges and major technology corporations can draw. Inspired by challenging academic work and a vibrant teaching force, these students will head to college excited—not intimidated—by math and science. We are seeing this at work in Maryland, where an increasing number of students are taking Advanced Placement math and science before heading to college.
• Build specialty high schools for mathematics and science. Statewide schools that specialize in science, technology, and mathematics may produce the new high-tech leaders for the next generation. They might also be used as a training ground for a new cadre of high-level math and science teachers.
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, author of the best-selling book The World Is Flat, referred to the National Academies’ proposals as “the new New Deal.” Friedman and others have urged the federal government to shine a spotlight on the crisis and help provide answers.
This is a bipartisan issue, and it calls for powerful, bipartisan solutions. There really is no time to waste. It isn’t just that our global competition is moving swiftly and boldly across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. It’s that as a global community, we cannot afford to waste any brainpower.
We need to build a new model in science and mathematics, and that includes, at its core, developing a creative, qualified teaching force. That task starts with bringing more students into high-level mathematics, science, and technology courses. We must nurture their interest, ignite their creativity, and embrace their success.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as A ‘New Model’ for a New World