How to fix the STEM education ‘crisis’

scienceclassresizedAccording to experts ranging from White House advisors to leading education organizations, the state of math and science instruction in the United States is in crisis–and only a major overhaul of the U.S. education system will get the nation back on track. In a Nov. 12 webinar, experts discussed several potential ways to bring out these necessary reforms, from changing the perception of math and science to implementing common national standards.

The webinar, titled “America’s Math and Science Crisis: How to Fix It,” was hosted by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University Teachers College. The event started with a list of statistics that suggested the skills of American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are declining in relation to students from other industrialized nations.

For instance, recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggested the top-performing U.S. high school students were bested by students from at least 20 other nations in math and science.

Presenters also discussed a story from the New York Daily News that was published on the same day as the webinar, reporting that freshman students at the City University of New York could not solve basic algebra problems involving fractions and decimals.

“It’s a problem that [exists] all across the country,” said presenter Steve Robinson, a member of the White House Domestic Policy Counsel for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and special advisor to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “You read about these things all the time.”

According to Robinson, the solution to the STEM education crisis revolves around ED’s four major areas of school reform: improved standards and assessments (and specifically, promoting common national standards), effective teachers and school leaders, the use of robust data systems to inform instruction, and targeting chronically low-performing schools.

Although there are many funding sources to help encourage high-quality education, Robinson cited the federal Race to the Top Fund, “which I think could specifically help STEM fields,” he said.

The fund, which will distribute nearly $5 billion to states that adopt ED’s reform goals, is now open for applications. (See “$5 billion ‘Race to the Top’ begins.”) However, there is a “Competitive Preference Priority” that says the fund will give preference to states that focus on STEM education by providing rigorous standards, partnering with national and local STEM organizations, and encouraging underrepresented groups to enter the STEM fields.

Michele Cahill, vice president for national programs and director of urban education at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic organization dedicated to education research and knowledge “diffusion,” said it’s not just about advancing STEM-capable kids into the STEM fields, but making sure that students who are not even moderately proficient in math and science can at least become college-ready in those subjects.

“It’s about making sure the entire country is at a proficient level–and then, of course, making sure a larger number of those students then go on to become advanced in those fields,” said Cahill.

Only by aligning school system design with standards and assessments, as well as with effective teaching and human capitol management, can students learn STEM subjects in broad, deep ways that will lead to academic success, Cahill said.

“Right now, maybe there are good standards and assessments, but only little focus on good teaching. Or maybe there’s good teaching, but no school administrative support. Everything needs to be stacked and aligned to produce good results,” she said.

The Carnegie Corporation is advancing the recommendations of its Institute for Advanced Study, which aims to transform education in the United States so that every student reaches higher levels of mathematics and science learning.

Its report, titled “The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy,” focuses on three recommendations to improve STEM education:

1. Establish common standards for the nation in math and science–standards that are fewer, clearer, and more advanced–along with high-quality assessments that will demonstrate proficiency effectively.

2. Improve the practice of math and science teaching and the methods for recruiting and preparing teachers and for managing the nation’s teaching talent.

Meris Stansbury

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at