There is an interesting article by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Education Week, entitled "STEM: Why It Makes No Sense." In it, he argues that the countless STEM programs being installed in schools around the country, and most of those being in high schools, won't mean that we'll see increased numbers of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, or that we'll stop the tech gap that has existed in our favor since WWII from sliding to the likes of China, India, and other nations. The primary reason for his skepticism is we do not have the infrastructure or will or funds being devoted to a systemic revival of STEM. As Mr. Tucker states:
"Here is an interesting fact. The countries that are producing more
people with higher skills in mathematics, science, engineering,
technology, and science don't have STEM programs. When we do
benchmarking research in those countries, we don't hear their educators
talking about STEM priorities. We don't hear their industrial leaders
doing that either. The term is not used. The programs don't exist.
What is going on here? How come they are doing better at this when we have STEM programs and they don't?"
I tend to agree that if all we do are scattered programs here and there, while it may generate interest and skills and expertise for some relatively small number of students in those programs as they head off to college, it will not make a significant national difference.
I doubt if many would argue against the notion that the role of STEM for the U.S. economic growth and eventual dominance the past century is enormous. Our industrial might, innovation, and science base are mostly responsible for the U.S. being the remaining superpower, and STEM and industrial might is leading China and likely India to superpower status in the next couple decades. So there is good reason why many scholars, economists, educators, and politicians worry about a public that is mostly science illiterate, and there not being enough American STEM graduates to fill good technical jobs. Many are worried that one-third of our research base in universities is filled by foreign students. The strength of our economy and way of life will depend in large part to the next generation of STEM workers. So this is an important topic to figure out, as Mr. Tucker points out.
One reason why other nations might not have the number of programs we do is because they fit STEM subjects and classes into the overall educational system. Those countries fix the system if something goes wrong, not add isolated programs. When you take a systems approach, you can accomplish what I wish we could accomplish in American schools, and that is have a continuum of education from pre-K all the way through high school and into college. Instead, many of our K-8 districts are disconnected from high school districts, and there is no continuum. For political reasons, Americans tend to focus on high schools - but the issues develop in elementary school or even earlier.
Can we expect high school programs of any kind to make up for a decade of neglect? If insufficient skills and background knowledge and desire and creativity exist in students when they get to the high school, can we expect to suddenly turn those students around, especially in technical subject areas that tend to be difficult for those who are prepared? I agree with Mr. Tucker that it is unlikely, and I have experience with all this that tells me the same.
Other countries have high public support and respect for teachers, and the best and brightest going into college are recruited and encouraged to become teachers. Elementary teachers in some countries need to at least minor in subjects like math and science before they can teach even the youngest children. Teachers in many other countries are paid at the same level as engineers, doctors and lawyers. In the U.S., most elementary teachers I know rate math and science as their weaknesses, and some have almost no training. This is not their fault, but rather the system allows this to happen. There is a bashing of teachers right now in the American public that says we are lazy, work six hour days, make too much, and have summers off (my response to this, for what it is worth, is that if it is such a cushy job with so much money and so much free time, why are those who are not teachers not flocking to try and become teachers? And why does every teacher I know who changed careers to become teachers, to a person, say they never worked so hard compared to their previous job?)
And at the top of all this, at least for the past decade, is No Child Left Behind. With math and reading as the only subjects that matter for elementary schools, no wonder science, as well as social studies, the arts, and all other subjects, been largely neglected at a time in history when they are more important than ever.
What we have been doing systemically does not make sense. But I share Mr. Tucker's doubt that anything will be done systemically. So we will be stuck with programs, trying to prepare as many students as possible, so they can carry the load for the country.
Does our STEM system do anything positive, though? We still have the greatest university system the world flocks to. Our partnerships between universities, the private sector and the government is second to none. We still have the greatest amount of innovation the world envies, and tries to steal. Our top students can compete with anyone on the planet. It is the middle on down that we worry about in a global, technical world.
I am also encouraged by those schools that take on a theme of STEM, where this is a focus for all its students. This is bigger than a program, and is progress. However, the fear for public schools is still the high-stakes testing that discourages inquiry, collaboration, and creativity.
In the end, we may learn the hard way that systemic change needs to happen at a faster than glacial pace. We'll see if a worst-case scenario plays out, where we lose our advantage in technical areas, lose our competitive edge in industry, and begin to rely on the rest of the world for tomorrow's innovation and products and medical breakthroughs. Let's try to address the writing on the wall before it becomes a reality.