Build on successes of No Child Left Behind

Over the past century, America’s economic growth has been attributed to advancements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

These innovations have enabled the United States to be the first in flight, build the Ford Model T, put a man on the moon and develop nuclear power.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in science and engineering occupations will grow 70 percent faster than the overall growth for all occupations, and that STEM graduates will enjoy higher starting salaries than graduates in non-STEM fields. Despite these achievements and the growing demand for graduates in STEM fields, however, our country has begun to fall behind other nations in these critical areas.

In order for the United States to preserve its reputation as an innovative world leader throughout the next century and beyond, our country will need a capable scientific and technological workforce to maintain and improve our country’s economic competitiveness. To achieve these standards we must focus our attention to our nation’s classrooms.

As the senior Republican of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, and as a senior member on the subcommittee that oversees postsecondary education, I have heard many express their concern that our country is not preparing a sufficient number of students, teachers, and practitioners in STEM. According to the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment of 15-year-old students, the United States ranked 28th in math literacy and 24th in science literacy. Furthermore, according to the National Science Foundation, the United States ranks 20th among all nations in the proportion of 24-year-olds earning degrees in science or engineering. These rankings are staggering when one considers the early innovative successes the United States achieved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Research indicates that one of the most important factors in increasing student achievement is having a highly qualified teacher in the classroom.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, school districts throughout the United States are having difficulty hiring qualified math and science teachers. The U.S. Department of Education found that 51.5 percent of middle school teachers teaching math and 40 percent of those teaching science did not have a major or minor in either subject. Among high school teachers, 14.5 percent of those teaching math and 11.2 percent of those teaching science did not have a major or minor in these areas.

Since coming to Congress, I have lent my support to a number of bills that have aimed to improve current STEM programs. I also joined the House STEM Education Caucus in order to work with my House colleagues to strengthen STEM education at every level. We must, however, revitalize our commitment to educating our young people in math and science and to developing and retaining a high-quality mathematics- and science-teaching workforce.

In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama articulated the need to build upon the bipartisan strengths of the No Child Left Behind Act by making additional reforms to the aspects that are helping to improve student achievement, particularly those that inspire students to excel in math and science, and revisiting weaker aspects of the law. I look forward to working with the administration and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to consider bipartisan ideas that aim to support students and educators so that our country can maintain its position as the world’s leading innovator.

Specifically, Congress should look at ways we can invest in basic research in physical sciences and math and science education; fund loan forgiveness for STEM teachers and potential scholarships for students to become science and math teachers; recruit pre-service teachers to study math and science and gain certification in these fields; encourage pathways for baby boomers in science, math and engineering occupations to enter teaching upon retirement; sustain support of new math and science teachers so that they do not leave the profession; and provide quality and sustained professional development to STEM educators. By making STEM fields more appealing for our students and professionals, we can spur economic growth and improve the standard of living for all Americans.

Technology, engineering and mathematics will continue to be vital to American society. These fields are not only important for developing a productive workforce and improving our economy, but are critical in improving our safety and well-being. Failure to invest in STEM education places America’s future economic and technological leadership at risk. If we are to keep pace with the rest of the world, Congress’s policies must support the development of critical STEM educational programs.

Castle is the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.