U.S. economic future needs STEM education

Our best STEM students have no trouble competing with their international peers, but we cannot rely on just the top five percent. On average, our K-12 students continue to lag far behind their international peers in math and science aptitude. Earlier this year, the National Assessment Governing Board released the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science scores. The assessment found that less than half of our nation’s students are demonstrating solid academic performance and proficiency in science. Equally troubling are the significant achievement gaps at every level between White and minority students. The NAEP revealed that, on a zero to 300 scale, Black fourth-graders and eighth-graders scored an average of 36 points lower than their White counterparts and Black 12th-graders scored an average of 34 points lower than their White counterparts.  

While this achievement gap was never excusable, as long as our nation overall was still number one, it was easier for our leaders to let year after year pass without taking the hard steps to address it. But now, just as our nation’s leadership is challenged, our demographics are shifting in profound ways.  By the year 2050, minorities are predicted to represent 55 percent of the national college population. According to recently released census data, Whites  now account for just 45 percent of the population in Texas, down from 52 percent a decade ago. We simply will not have a sufficient well-trained STEM workforce if we continue to overlook an increasingly significant fraction of the talent pool. We need to do a better job of developing ALL of the STEM talent the nation has to offer. 

Many Federal STEM programs, including those supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, are making a difference in universities, community colleges, and K-12 schools across the nation. One highly successful teacher training program is the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which I helped to expand in the America COMPETES Act legislation. The Noyce scholarship program helps to prepare future math and science teachers by giving them a solid foundation in both their subject matter and the pedagogy specific to math and science education. The Noyce program was modeled after innovative and highly successful teacher preparation programs, including the UTeach program in Texas. UTeach is a unique four-year program which was initiated at The University of Texas at Austin in 1997 and is now being replicated at 21 universities around the country.

The Teach for America program has also had great success at recruiting outstanding recent college graduates to teach in under-resourced schools. In 2004, Teach for America began their Math and Science Initiative which focuses on recruitment of graduating college seniors, graduate students, and professionals with STEM expertise. Over the past two years, this approach has increased the number of Teach for America applicants with a math, science, or engineering background. In the 30th Congressional District of Texas, we are fortunate to have 245 Teach for America corps members teaching alongside many excellent veteran teachers. 

Programs like these help us out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build the rest of the world. As Ranking Member of Science, Space and Technology, it is my top priority to identify and support strategies that will bolster American innovation, improve STEM education, promote diversity, and ensure that we are not only competing in the 21st century, but leading.