Competitiveness hinges on skills students learn

What if you were told of a way we could increase our country’s gross domestic product by over $40 trillion over the next two decades? You might assume we would be scrambling to make those changes. According to a report issued last month by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which represents 30 countries, a modest increase in test scores in math and science of our students would boost our GDP by $40 trillion over the next 20 years. But we certainly are not scrambling as we should to improve math and science education in our K-12 schools.

The United States lags behind developed countries in economic competitiveness, and our K-12 students rank below their peers in most developed countries, according to international surveys of math and science scores — a key indicator of how competitive we will be in the future. We are losing our competitive edge, and we need to act quickly to get it back.

I commend President Barack Obama for putting a very strong focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in his fiscal 2011 budget proposal, and I am anxious to see the administration’s detailed proposals for improving our current federal STEM education programs.

Much of the work must take place in K-12 classrooms. Teachers are trying hard to engage young people in math and science, but many do not have the proper resources or training to be fully effective. Congress can help by providing the tools teachers need to teach math and science effectively. Programs such as Math and Science Partnerships (MSP) at the Department of Education provide teachers with in-service training or professional development to improve their STEM education content knowledge and teaching skills. I introduced a bill that would help guide these efforts. I hope it can be used as a template for updating STEM teacher professional development programs.

In addition to highly trained and motivated teachers, we must strive to improve standards in math and science education. President George W. Bush deserves a great deal of credit for his work toward passing the No Child Left Behind Act, the single biggest improvement to standards and accountability in the history of our nation’s K-12 education programs. Unfortunately, that law is due to expire, and its reauthorization has languished in the House Education and Labor Committee. I am on that committee, and I stand ready to work with the committee’s leaders, and with President Barack Obama, to develop bipartisan legislation and immediately restart the reauthorization process.

While Congress cannot, and should not, set curricula for schools, it should encourage schools to strive for better results in math and science education.

That is why I have introduced the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids (SPEAK) Act in the House, in cooperation with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who introduced companion legislation in the Senate. This bill would task the National Assessment Governing Board with establishing rigorous, world-class, voluntary standards for math and science education and provide financial incentives to states to voluntarily adopt these excellent standards.

In the meantime, a consortium of 48 states is working together to develop meaningful, uniform standards to be used in all states.

The jobs of the future will require a strong background in math and science. This has become most evident in my home state of Michigan, as manufacturing jobs have left the state. Today’s manufacturing jobs require highly skilled workers with strong backgrounds in math and science. One of the biggest keys in bringing those jobs back to our state is by focusing on math and science skills from the earliest years of our children’s education.

If we do not act soon, our nation will be unable to develop high-tech and high-skilled jobs, and our students, the workforce of our nation’s future, will lack the skills needed to boost our GDP by $40 trillion over the next 20 years. I hope my colleagues in Congress, and President Barack Obama, will look toward this prospect of a very bright future and act with foresight. We are losing precious time to get our country back on track toward global competitiveness, and without strong and sustained investments in math and science education, we will only continue spinning our wheels.

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