Improving STEM graduation rates is key to global competitiveness
Historically, the United States has been the example of quality education — but in recent years, we’ve seen a dramatic slide that puts our nation’s educational standard at “average.” Our students’ performance in math and science ranks somewhere near the middle in comparison to 33 other developed countries (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).
Recent actions by our country’s executive office indicate that it’s taking the downturn seriously. In 2007 initiative to provide capable workers for high-growth industries, the Bush Administration identified 14 industries that could experience a decline in innovation and growth due to the decrease in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates. These industries include automotive, biotechnology, aerospace, energy, health care and homeland security (U.S. Department of Labor, 2007).
The Obama Administration has taken up the challenge and identified STEM success as being critical to America’s competitive future. In July 2010, President Barack Obama stated that his administration would devote the resources to move our country to the top in math and science education by the end of the decade (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).
Common traits of top STEM countries
The United States currently ranks 17th in science and 14th in reading (AP, 2010), according to a USA Today article. The scores are from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that tests the knowledge of 15-year-old students in 34 participating countries.
PISA analysts noticed some common characteristics in top-performing schools:
- High degree of autonomy
- Schools are accountable
- High caliber teachers
- Teachers are subject to evaluations
- Teachers enjoy high social status
Building a STEM foundation in early education
To produce more STEM-capable graduates in the United States, clearly accountability and quality are important for school systems and teachers. In addition, a study sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) suggests that getting students started with STEM education in elementary grades and continuing this course of study can help build a foundation of knowledge. This may ensure that students take more science courses in middle and high school.
According to the NSF, there are six factors needed to build an educational system that supports STEM:
- Coherent standards and curriculum
- Qualified teachers
- A system of assessment and accountability
- Adequate time to teach
- Assessments for all students
- An academic environment that nurtures learning
The National Research Council suggests that policymakers at the local, state and national levels must develop cohesive standards, assessments and structures to support students and teachers to become more STEM-capable. In addition, providing adequate time to teach and learn STEM subjects is critical.
No matter how bleak the outlook and how tough the challenge, the news isn’t all bad; U.S. students’ PISA scores in 2009 are higher than they were in 2003 and 2006. In an Associated Press interview, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledges that there’s much to do, even with the recent increase. “This is a wake-up call for America,” Duncan states. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”