Joe Courtney: Promote STEM for security and prosperity

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In the wake of the shocking news that the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the world’s first space satellite, in 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act into law. 

This established a national policy to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in America’s schools and colleges. Ike underscored the necessity of a national response, explaining that the law “would do much to strengthen our American system of education so that it can meet the broad and increasing demands imposed on it by consideration of national security.”

Fifty-seven years later, Ike’s words still ring true. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM occupations grew at three times the pace of non-STEM jobs from 2004 to 2012, a pace that is expected to continue over the next decade. 

At the same time, China produces 23 percent of the world’s STEM graduates while the U.S produces only 10 percent. The STEM Education Coalition, boasting a diverse group of employers — including Microsoft, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Farm Bureau — and STEM educators — including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics — are promoting STEM’s critical role to meet the growing demands of the U.S. workforce.

Despite these trends, only 16 percent of high school seniors are interested in pursuing STEM careers, even though STEM jobs deliver strong salaries. The average income for a STEM worker exceeds $79,000 per year, more than double the wages of the average job. In addition to boosting family incomes, a more robust national STEM policy could also address the worrisome under-representation of young women and minorities in STEM fields, which has persisted for far too long.

During the House Education and Workforce Committee’s daylong markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill earlier this month, I introduced an amendment to focus federal education dollars on the promotion of STEM from preschool through 12th grade. 

The amendment would provide grants to hire STEM teachers (who can command higher salaries outside of teaching), help school systems develop STEM curricula better aligned with their workforce needs, and help engage young girls and minorities in the exciting, rewarding fields of STEM.

Unfortunately, my amendment and the STEM Education Council’s agenda ran into opposition from Republican committee members who rejected it on a party-line vote, arguing the federal government has no business promoting education priorities for “local” elementary and secondary education. This view ignores the reality of the global marketplace, where our competitors do not hamper themselves with such partisan hair-splitting.

As Eisenhower put it so succinctly in his 1958 State of the Union address, “In both education and research, redoubled exertions will be necessary on the part of all Americans if we are to rise to the demands of our times.” 

That “necessity” he identified in 1958 is as urgent today as it was then. He led the way to a bipartisan solution with passage of the National Defense Education Act. We should heed Ike’s example by strengthening a federal STEM educational policy in the 2015 ESEA reauthorization.


Joe Courtney has represented Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District since 2007. He sits on the Education and the Workforce, and the Armed Services committees.