Obama Advisers Call for Greater Emphasis on STEM Education

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

A new report to President Barack Obama from his science advisers urges the federal government to improve science and math education in U.S. schools by both leading the way and rooting from the sidelines.

Speaking today at a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which adopted but didn’t release the report, co-chair Eric Lander said that the country needs many more specialized schools that focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). He called for a program that would give special recognition to master STEM teachers--“not the rare award, but maybe 5% of the teacher corps”--so that they could help improve the performance of their colleagues. And he said that the effective use of technology means a lot more than giving schools computers. The fact that the federal government provides only about 8% of total funding for elementary and secondary education, however, means that it must work closely with states to achieve these and other goals, Lander added.

The report, expected out by the end of September, backs most of the Administration’s current strategies to raise student achievement in elementary and secondary schools. But he said a more concerted effort and greater resources are needed. “The federal government hasn’t been organized with a coherent strategy and leadership capacity for K–12 STEM education,” said Lander, director of the Broad Institute of the Masschusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. “There have been many STEM programs started, some of them very good. But they are growing somewhat disconnected from each other. Given the importance of STEM education, and its bipartisan support, it’s essential to bring coherence to that vision.”

Lander said the report applauds the efforts of individual states to adopt common standards in core subjects to ensure that a high school degree represents a similar level of knowledge by students in every state. He also expressed his hope that science will soon follow reading and math as subjects that have been adopted by a growing majority of states that have signed onto the common standards movement.

But a solid preparation in STEM areas isn’t the only thing that students should expect from their education, he added. “Inspiration is also needed, at all levels, and we have to make sure that every element of our educational system is set up to both prepare and inspire.” Those twin missions are highlighted in the title of the report, Prepare and Inspire: STEM Education for America’s Future.

The report reflects the consensus of a year-long discussion among some 20 experts both within and outside PCAST, explained the panel’s co-chair, University of Maryland physicist James Gates. It’s the first of two reports on STEM education. The second, dealing with STEM in higher education, has yet to get under way.

PCAST’s work on K–12 STEM education is not done, however. “We expect to meet with the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation in the next 6 to 12 months” to see how PCAST can help those and other federal agencies to implement the report, Lander said. “We want to stay on top of this.”

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