Oust mediocrity as the standard for achievement

Scientists and teachers have long been concerned about the quality of science and math education. Yet, scientists and educators should not be the only ones troubled by our students’ mediocre performance in these subjects. Every citizen concerned about the long-term health of our nation’s economy should be worried by our current educational performance. Parents who want their children to succeed in a new global economy should be interested.

Patients in need of new medical advances and citizens who want to see technological progress should care about our nation’s performance in this area.

Science and math education is clearly important to our nation’s future economic prosperity and national security. As President Barack Obama noted during his State of the Union Address, China, India and Germany, to name three, are “putting more emphasis on math and science.”

These nations recognize that almost all jobs of the future will require a basic understanding of math and science. The Department of Labor recently found that three-fourths of the 20 fastest-growing future occupations will need workers with significant math or science preparation.

A decade ago, I had the honor to serve on the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, which became known as the John Glenn Commission. In a report titled “Before It’s Too Late,” we made clear that our nation must increase the number of teachers in those fields significantly and provide more opportunities for teachers to enhance their math and science teaching skills.

Ten years later, I still believe policymakers must do more to support the teachers that play a critical role in science and math education. The Commission recommended that teachers receive the greatest attention, even ahead of curriculum or other areas.

As a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, I have been focused on ways to do just that. In 2007, I helped create the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants program, which provides up to $16,000 over four years in college aid to students who commit to teaching science or math. So far, though, the administration has managed to keep secret the existence of the large grants.

I have worked to boost resources for the underfunded Mathematics and Science Partnerships program, which provides professional development opportunities to a wide range of teachers and helps them continue improving their skills.

I have also worked on a bipartisan basis with my colleague Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) to ensure that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act places the same importance on science as it does for other subjects, such as English.

In today’s tight budget environment, I applaud the Obama administration for proposing historic increases in the federal government’s commitment to science education in their fiscal 2011 budget. I was pleased to see $300 million in the Department of Education budget for improving teaching and learning in science and math. While I am still reviewing the proposed initiative to replace the Mathematics and Science Partnerships program, we must recognize that great teachers are made, not born. I feel strongly that any new program must continue to support professional development activities for science and math teachers as they seek to improve their craft.

In addition, any new program must ensure that professional development programs are widely available across the country, not just to a few schools that compete successfully because they are already top-notch.

Improving our children’s abilities in science and math is critical for our economy, our national security and our democracy. Everyone, from scientist to teacher to parent to businessperson, should be concerned with how well we educate our children in this area. I look forward to working with my colleagues to fulfill the goals of the Glenn Commission and regain our nation’s leadership in science and math education.

Holt is a member of the House Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee.