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FYI Number 105: October 18, 2007

House Science Subcommittee Reviews New STEM Report

A National Science Board (NSB) report addressing the U.S. system of pre-college through 12th grade science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education received generally favorable reviews in an October 10 hearing before the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. The NSB report, released on October 3, notes that “U.S. students are not obtaining the STEM knowledge they need to succeed,” and makes recommendations aimed at increasing coherence in the STEM curriculum as set by the nation’s 14,000 school districts, and increasing the number and quality of STEM teachers (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/090.html for further information on the report.)

“Congress, the administration, and business and industry all agree that bolstering STEM education is key to fostering innovation and discovery, and ensuring the nation’s economic development and ability to compete in the global marketplace,” said subcommittee chairman Brian Baird (D-WA). Baird’s comments were echoed by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), long a champion in Congress of improving STEM education. Noting that many past efforts to improve STEM education have suffered from a lack of coordination, Ehlers said the need to fix the U.S. education system is critical and “requires a Sputnik-like moment” to get it done.

While all of the education experts testifying at the hearing supported the NSB’s call for more recruiting and training of STEM teachers, representatives of both the business community and local school boards were less enthusiastic about establishing a national council that could set national standards for STEM curriculum. The report's most controversial recommendation calls for “a new, independent, non-Federal National Council for STEM Education to coordinate and facilitate STEM programs and initiatives throughout the nation.”

“The top-down approach of creating a national council to set academic content guidelines and teacher certification requirements is troublesome for school board members who value local flexibility and must deal with the day-to-day operational challenges of implementing these policies,” said Chrisanne Gayl, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association. If a national council restricted itself to developing and disseminating content guidelines it “may be helpful in enriching math and science curriculum. However, we caution that it is a slippery slope from content guidelines to national standards.”

Susan Traiman, director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, supported the overall goals of the NSB report, but cautioned against establishing a council that would set national standards for STEM education. She noted that there are efforts in several states to align their requirements for high school graduation, and otherwise develop coordinated testing for some STEM subjects. “Although it continues to be absurd in our international economy for states to have different standards in reading and mathematics, the business community is not currently promoting the development of voluntary national standards and assessments . . . ,” she said. “We do not believe that federal involvement at this juncture would not be helpful in moving a process that is gaining ground at the state level.”

Francis Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), spoke in favor of establishing a national council. “By establishing an independent national council for STEM education, we can reestablish the sustained critical focus in education that was the hallmark of this great country’s success in response to the launch of Sputnik 50 years ago.” The NCTM is “optimistic” that a STEM council “would develop an agenda that would identify and address the issues that would make a meaningful difference in student learning,” he said.

The goal of the recommendations, said Steven Beering, chairman of the NSB, is to create both “horizontal coordination of STEM education among states and vertical alignment among components of the system, from pre-kindergarten through college. A coordinated system of STEM education means that a student who starts kindergarten in Kansas, attends middle school in California, and enters high school in Illinois will have the opportunity to master the foundational skills needed for future success in the workforce and higher education.”

At the conclusion of the hearing, Ehlers, responding to reservations about a federal “top down” approach to setting standards, said that the federal government needs to become involved in STEM education. “There has to be some cohesive mechanism to pull this all together and get it done,” he said. “There has to be a top.”

Jim Dawson
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3087

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