Prospects for a “STEM Teacher Master Corps”

In late July, the Obama administration announced a plan to create a “STEM Teacher Master Corps”, a corps of teachers specializing in science and math fields who would lead community and local efforts to improve STEM education in schools.  The teachers would be chosen by local school officials to “lead professional development [courses], mentorship activities, and  regularly contribute new lesson plans and strategies to transform and improve science and math teaching,” in exchange for a $20,000 per year bonus, according to Robert Rodriguez, a special assistant to President Obama for education.  The program would start with 50 selected teachers and expand to 10,000 in four years.  The program was originally recommended in a 2010 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The White House, along with the administration’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has consistently emphasized the importance of the STEM fields in the overall approach to education in the 21st century.  “If America is going to compete for the jobs and industries of tomorrow, we need to make sure our children are getting the best education possible,” Obama said in a statement. “Teachers matter, and great teachers deserve our support.”  Sec. Duncan pointed out that American students lag behind most other industrialized countries, including China, South Korea, Japan, and  most  of Europe in the STEM fields.

The program is dependent on funding from Congress and comes with a $1 billion price tag, making its prospects questionable at best.  The money is included in Obama’s 2013 budget request being considered by Congress.  Democrats tried to secure funding for a similar program last year, but the proposal did not reach the House or Senate floors.  Both Sec. Duncan and the White House emphasized the bipartisan recognition that progress is needed in STEM for American competitiveness and that local and state support for such a program is essential but they may be overestimating how far that bipartisan consensus will take them.  An aide to Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, told the Associated Press, the federal government already has more than 80 teacher quality programs and questioned the wisdom of pouring more money into another program that might not add anything new — or effective — to improve education.  Further, the announcement comes on the heels of a House Appropriations sub-committee vote approving a bill that would dismantle three key elements of Obama’s education reform plan: Race To The Top, the School Improvement Grant program, and the Investing In Innovation (i3)  program.

Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: NBC News, US News and World Report, The Atlantic

Photo Credit:Science Lab” courtesy of flickr user Jose Kevo

Waiting for a New Sputnik

South Korea and Finland scored the highest amongst 15-year-old students in three main subjects of math, science, and reading according to a recently published report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Conversely, the United States has continued its educational skid, and currently sits at fourteenth, well behind the leading European and Asian countries.  Meanwhile, in China, there were large gains in the Shanghai-area, which have stunned officials, but many view the scores with skepticism, arguing the city does not represent the country as a whole.

The statistics are based on an OECD administrated test, known as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Over 470,000 students in 65 countries took part in the assessment last year.

At a Capitol Hill event, the OECD Division Head of the PISA program Andreas Schleicher presented the findings and demonstrated the transitioning landscape of education, particularly with the rise of Chinese cities and the stagnation of U.S. school systems.  Schleicher concluded his presentation by saying that “education can change, education is changing.”

At a PAGE event this past March, Schleicher addressed the growing achievement gap within the United States, adding that standards need to be reformed while empowering teachers to improve guidelines and methods.  Schleicher argued that the “resulting value of successful school reform far exceeds any conceivable costs of improvement.”

The U.S. hovers around average in reading and science, with math scores well below the OECD average.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the findings “a massive wake-up call.”  Secretary Duncan, hoping to use the report as driving force in education reform, remarked that “We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

In a speech at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina, President Obama compared the education challenges of today to the space race at the height of the Cold War.  “Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” adding “nations with the most educated workers will prevail.”

Posted by: Michael Darden

Sources: Washington Post, New York Times, OECD, Huffington Post, Alliance for Excellent Education

Photo credit: Osterreich 2020 courtesy of flickr user SPO Presse und Kommunikation

Linking Innovation to Education Standards

With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) pending, educators and politicians are mulling over how standards, either national or state-by-state, will deliver results and raise student achievements.

Earlier this week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attended the Virginia Governor’s Education Summit where he addressed the need for stronger innovation in teaching.  While addressing the crowd, he gave a personal anecdote about his how his children, who attend Virginia public schools, learn of the solar system through song instead of a textbook, an example of innovative learning techniques that move away from the “teach the test” mentality.  He went on to argue that this type of innovative teaching will help the country regain its status as an educational powerhouse.

Secretary Duncan has become a strong advocate for advancing national standards as a means to increase student success across the country, as they are pushing for legislation that is supportive of reform.  However, some local officials are objecting to setting national standards.

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who hosted the event, argued that he “would prefer that federal rules allow a choice between the national standards or equivalent state test,” Governor McDonnell made the decision not to let Virginia compete in the federally funded Race to the Top program earlier this summer.  Despite the differences in opinion between the two, McDonnell praised Duncan for his “relentless focus on setting high standards.”

At a Wilson Center event earlier this year, a group of Distinguished Einstein Fellows gathered to discuss this very issue.  One panelist, Kirk Janowiak argued that a balance must be found between standards.  “If they are made high enough to be meaningful, then we end up squashing the innovation of teaching, and we end up providing our teachers with scripts,” but continued by adding that if standards are too low  “we open up ourselves to the current trend we have of mediocrity.”

In an attempt to raise the bar in education, Janowiak argued that compromise must be reached between local and federal officials in order to ensure America’s educational success for the future.

Posted by: Michael Darden

Sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Photo credit: David Hawxhurst, Wilson Center

The State of STEM

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently released a much anticipated report about the future of STEM education entitled, “Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) for America’s Future.”  Commissioned by the administration last year, the report provides insight into the challenge of attracting students to science and technology fields, and details the persistent American achievement gap.

The report indicates that there are two underlying issues in American STEM education; the first being a lack of proficiency and the second being a lack of interest in the subject matter.  As it stands now, the United States currently sits in the middle of the pack or lower, the report states, with “less than one-third of U.S. eighth graders show[ing] proficiency in mathematics and science.”

The report contained a number of recommendations to help reverse this troubling trend.  Among them were creating new centers of learning focusing on standards and assessments, and encouraging the creation of a new generation of teachers focused on advancing innovation and increasing interest among students.  Eric Lander, co-chair of the report, spoke to an audience at the Brookings Institute prior to its release emphasizing that, in regards to students we “have to focus on inspiration, that everyone is inspired enough to learn something about STEM and many of them inspired enough to actually go into STEM.”  In order to achieve these goals, the report also urged for a doubling of current yearly federal appropriation for STEM education.

While Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the report a “valuable resource” for future initiatives, some have expressed criticism over the potential costs.

Posted by: Michael Darden

Sources: The White House, National Journal, Science, Brookings Institute

Photo Credit: Science Class at UIS courtesy of flick user jeremy.wilburn

Increasing Number of States Adopt National Education Standards

On Wednesday July 21, 2010, 27 states indicated their intentions to adopt national education standards to be implemented in the coming years and more are expected to do so in the near future.  While critics maintain that national education standards will lead to more federal government control and inertia at the state level, pursuing national education standards has long been a goal of Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama Education Department.  States that adopt these standards by August 2nd will receive bonus points towards receiving ‘Race to the Top’ funding which will be granted in September.

In March of this year, the Program on America and the Global Economy held an event on the question of national education standards with a group of Einstein Fellows, outstanding math and science teachers selected to spend a year in executive branch or congressional offices.  While some of the fellows argued for the adoption of national standards, citing the achievement gap, increased student mobility, and making cross-state comparisons more effective, the fellows admitted that having national standards in place would certainly not act as an educational panacea.

Posted by: Clark Taylor

Sources: New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cato Institute

Photo Credit: The United States Department of Education