Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he wants to launch a "new era" of science education in the United States–one that encourages students to ask tough, challenging questions and brings more specially trained science and math teachers into the classroom.

Speaking at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference in New Orleans on March 20, Duncan said President Barack Obama sees a need for inventors and engineers along with poets and scholars and "will not allow scientific research to be held hostage to a political agenda."

"Whether it’s global warming, evolution, or stem-cell research, science will be honored. It will be respected and supported by this administration," he said.

The federal stimulus bill includes more than $100 billion in new education funding, with $650 million set aside for technology grants, he said. Duncan couldn’t say how much money would go specifically into science but pledged funds would be available to modernize labs.

He also said many of the teaching jobs saved with stimulus dollars would be in science classrooms. But the money must be used wisely, he said, not just on saving jobs but also on driving strong reforms.

"The stimulus bill is a historic opportunity to lay the groundwork for a generation of educational reform," Duncan said. While the U.S. is facing a "historic educational crisis," he said, it is also in the midst of a unique opportunity to achieve an ambitious set of reforms.

Raising standards, establishing comprehensive data systems, increasing teacher quality, and helping underperforming schools are all at the top of the federal Education Department’s to-do list, Duncan said.

The nation’s students are no longer competing with other U.S. students for jobs, but instead are up against students from India and China, he said. Science education is critical in helping U.S. students compete worldwide.

"America won the space race, but in many ways American education [is losing] the science race," Duncan said.

He also cited a $5 billion "Race to the Top fund" to provide incentives to states already doing innovative, reform-minded work. He said there’s been a "dumbing down of standards for political reasons" under the current system of states with their own benchmarks and standards. That system doesn’t make much sense, he said, drawing applause–and it isn’t doing students any favors in the global economy.

"Getting more young people into science isn’t something we can successfully implement just from Washington," he said. "That falls on you, and your colleagues and classrooms all around the country," he told the audience.

Science teachers should challenge each other to expand their science curriculum and further engage students, he said–encouraging them to explore the possibility of science-related careers.

He said there’s a need for common, high standards that prepare students for college and the work force and for international benchmarks to compare U.S. students with their counterparts around the world. He said he’s working with state leaders who are pursuing school reforms and hopes to come up with a better system.

"I think in far too many states, meeting standards means you are at best barely qualified to graduate from high school, and you are woefully unprepared to go to college," he said. "We have been lying to children, and we are setting them up for long-term failure. That has to stop."

He said the country has a long way to go to improve science education. Sectors such as engineering, health care, technology, and green energy need more workers, and "a generalist," too often, is teaching middle school kids, he said.

He addressed the "extreme inequity" in science education, saying it has repercussions in the workforce, where science workers are desperately needed. In particular, women and minorities are underrepresented in science fields, and math and science teachers leave the profession in greater numbers because better-paying opportunities exist elsewhere.

That’s been a problem for years, and the market needs to pay science and math teachers more, he said.

Links:

Duncan’s speech

NSTA conference coverage