The House Education and the Workforce's 21st Century Competitiveness
Subcommittee met on May 19 to examine "what is happening within
America's educational system in the fields of math and science that
is hampering U.S. advancement," according to chairman Howard McKeon
(R-CA). Witnesses testified to a number of signs indicating that America's
lead in global S&T is slipping. They also agreed on the importance
of effective K-12 science and math education for America to maintain
its technological competitiveness. All seemed to feel that the time
was ripe for a "Sputnik moment" that mobilized the nation
to reinvigorate its efforts in science and math, but no one was sure
what that would take. However, as Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) remarked, "Just
saying we're at a Sputnik moment doesn't make it so." He noted
that there was "nothing tangible" like a Sputnik launch to
"wake us up" and marshal resources toward the problem.
Commenting that the average starting salary for engineering majors
is substantially greater than that of liberal arts and business administration
majors, McKeon declared, "clearly, there are already ample incentives
to attain degrees in math, science, and engineering." He thought
that the country was instead facing a "pipeline" issue, with
too few students who are interested in science and math, too few K-12
teachers who are trained in those fields, and colleges and universities
that are not doing enough to recruit and retain science and math majors.
Both Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin
Corporation, and Thomas Magnanti, Dean of the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology's School of Engineering, offered a number of suggestions
to strengthen science, engineering and technological innovation in the
U.S. These recommendations included: doubling the federal investment
in science, math and engineering over five years; creating scholarships
for students who pursue such fields; making degrees in these fields
more relevant; attracting and retaining top talent from around the world;
bringing free enterprise to the K-12 education system; and creating
tax incentives for businesses to invest in basic research at universities
and in education for employees.
America does not "have a culture now that seems to encourage young
people to get into math and science," said Rep. Tom Price (R-GA).
He asked what could be done to "create that spark?" Augustine
said that for earlier generations, higher education was seen as the
way to a better life, but that was no longer the case. Nancy Butler
Songer, a professor of science education at the University of Michigan,
said that, in her experience, most people who pursued science, math
or engineering careers had some "personally meaningful" experience
that attracted them to the field. June Streckfus, Executive Director
of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, remarked that focus
groups in recent years have shown that parents view such careers as
boring for their children, spent in cubicles and bereft of social interactions.
She also pointed out that in the Sputnik era, the emphasis was on training
the best and brightest students in math and science. While some students
are always interested in those fields, she said, the difference now
is the focus on math and science for "all kids."
Many comments were offered about how teachers are undervalued, underpaid
and no longer respected. Relating an anecdote about a science teacher
who paid for classroom supplies out of his own pocket, Rep. Betty McCollum
(D-MN) asked, "why for heaven's sake would anybody in their right
mind...want to be a teacher?" "We need to make the rewards
of a teaching career much greater...financially, socially, and culturally,"
Augustine stated. Songer called for treating teachers more professionally
and Magnanti suggested offering more professional development and summer
research experiences to keep teachers engaged.
Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Vern Ehlers (R-MI) outlined past efforts
to improve K-12 science and math education and support those who teach
it, including the 2000 report of the John Glenn Commission, on which
Holt served (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2000/fyi00.120.htm),
and a series of bills introduced by Ehlers (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2000/fyi00.041.htm).
The Glenn Commission's recommendations are still "very sound indeed,"
In describing her research on challenges facing science and math teachers
in the Detroit Public Schools, Songer said that one of the most common
teacher complaints was the amount of teachers' and students' time -
up to 15 weeks - spent preparing for and taking standardized tests.
While Songer emphasized the importance of accountability, rigorous standards
and effective tests of students' critical thinking skills, she argued
that testing should not be allowed to crowd out available instruction
time. Asked by Rep. Kind to assign a grade for how the country was doing
in preparing the next generation to compete in the global marketplace,
most of the witnesses, while noting that some aspects are excellent,
graded the overall system at or near a "D."