The Need for STEM: Exhibit P

For the past few years, there has been a growing debate on the need for STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education.  To some, STEM is a program for the elites, an honors program that doesn’t affect the majority of kids who need it.  For others, it is too expensive.  And for others still, it is a complicated issue that doesn’t fit neatly in the K-12 box.  As a result, STEM education efforts have been sporadic to date.  Some states — like Minnesota — have done a tremendous job building a STEM education effort that reaches all students in the continuum.  Unfortunately, far too many are playing a wait and see, holding off before making significant intellectual, time, or capital investments.

And then the PISA scores come out.  Of the 30 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.  Not only are we no longer the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox of STEM, we’re now dangerously close to being the cellar-dwellers, the Tampa Rays of K-12 math and science education.

Of course, PISA is usually one of the inside-iest of inside baseball games.  For the average parent, the average teacher, and average elected official, PISA is nothing more than a leaning tower in Italy.  We are just starting to understand NAEP, and now you throw this other acronym at us?  Are we really going to lose a night’s sleep over PISA scores?

The PISA data should serve as a dramatic wake-up call to all those who are resisting or avoiding STEM education.  No one should be happy that we are in bottom quartile or so of OECD states when it comes to math and science.  It used to be that Finland and Canada and Korea and the others looked to us for high-quality education, scientific innovation, and academic achievement.  Today, we are in a deep well of mediocrity, struggling to even see the bucket up top.

How, then, can we use such lackluster data to successfully communicate the need for robust, results-based STEM education in our schools?  Simple.  We use PISA to launch an aspirational, forward-looking effort that recognizes:

* We can’t settle for second (or 25th) place.  We need to set a national goal to boost our science and math instruction, knowledge, and performance.  Students, parents, and teachers need to know that goal.  And we all need to be working to achieve it.  If we can’t have national standards, we should at least have national goals.

* We must all understand that STEM education is not merely an education issue.  It is an economic issue, first and foremost.  It is a health issue.  It is an environmental issue.  It’s even a criminal justice issue.  Effective STEM education improves virtually all sectors of the community.  It brings jobs.  It prepares a workforce.  It improves health and environmental conditions.  And it provides real hope and opportunity.

* STEM is not just for the future doctors, engineers, and rocket scientists.  ALL students benefit from STEM.  It offers the critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving skills virtually all 21st century jobs require.  

* STEM education isn’t a responsibility just left to the schools.  At the end of the day, companies and employers are the ones most hard hit by our 25th and 21st place performances.  Those are their future employees coming up the rear.  The business community needs to continue its investment in STEM, increasing it to ensure it affects all students and is effectively linking K-12 to future careers. 

* We can’t sell our kids short.  Ask the average high school student, and they know they need math and science ed if they need a good job.  Yet many of us keep saying the students aren’t up to the challenge, the courses are too hard, or the courses aren’t relevant to what we expect of our kids.  All wrong.  Let’s push our kids.  Every student takes Algebra II.  All take advanced science, whether it be on an AP or a CTE track.  There are STEM pathways for every student.  We just might need to clear the brush a little.

No, Eduflack is not suggesting we overreact because of one set of testing data.  But PISA serves as a warning.  This isn’t the first time we’ve seen our test scores falling short against of international peers.  The solution isn’t to ignore them and focus only on ourselves.  If we boost math scores 2 percent, but our peers are boosting them 4 percent, tomorrow’s great American minds will never be able to catch up.  We should strive to be the best, not strive to be the best south of Canada and north of Nicaragua.

The United States has long held the reputation of being a nation of innovation, of invention, and of success.  That comes, in large part, from the outcomes of previous investments in science, math, and technology.  If we seek to be the leader in 21st century innovation, we have no time to waste.  We need to invest in high-quality, effective STEM education today.

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