The Case for Being Bold
A New Agenda for Business in Improving STEM Education

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The United States has historically enjoyed astonishing success on most measures of accomplishment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), even though international assessments repeatedly suggest that American students lag behind their peers in many nations when it comes to science and math achievement. But in an evolving world, the advantages that carried the United States through the past century appear far less likely to carry it through the next. With other nations making dramatic educational gains and challenging American supremacy in technology, fi nance, and research, our nation's continued success requires dramatic improvement when it comes to educating our youth in math and science.

While there has been a steady supply of sensible proposals for improving STEM education, most leave largely undisturbed the organizing assumptions of schools designed to process the masses and educate the few. The familiar "nice guy" repertoire that the business community has long embraced--partnering with existing institutions to promote "best practices," provide resources, and involve corporate supporters--offers some aid but is unlikely to deliver breakthrough improvement. Simply put, remedies engineered to fit comfortably within today's system will be hard-pressed to fundamentally transform STEM education. Creating a system that encourages excellence in STEM achievement will not be easy. On the latest international assessment, American students ranked 17th in science and 25th in math. America's high-achievers also lag, with just 6% of American students scoring at the advanced level in math, well short of the international norm. The situation is no brighter in higher education. The National Academies reports that the United States ranks 27th among developed nations on the percentage of college graduates who earn a degree in science or engineering.

In addressing the status quo, reformers must recognize two distinct parts to the STEM challenge. While schools must ensure that all students have an understanding of science, technology, and math, the system must also provide opportunities for the next generation of high-achieving innovators to pursue advanced study in math and science. Calls for universal STEM improvement often have not paid enough attention to rigor, compromising our ability to educate high-achieving STEM students.

Fortunately, the American business community is positioned to play a vital role in addressing both challenges. Business leaders are equipped to provide the kind of straight-talking leadership and relevant expertise that transformative STEM reform requires. With their enormous credibility, political heft, and ultimate role as the employer of America's STEM talent, business leaders are perhaps the only major stakeholder that has the freedom, reason, and muscle to challenge a comfortable status quo that universities, school boards, educators, unions, and parents have been reluctant to change.

What will it take for business leaders to tackle the STEM challenge more ambitiously? Business leaders would do well to focus on specifi c key areas: taking full advantage of strengthened and streamlined academic standards; rethinking how teachers are hired, deployed, and prepared; and promoting new models of schooling that can facilitate STEM learning. In each case, business must push beyond the familiar talking points and challenge typical routines.

Making New Standards Count

  • Fewer and clearer standards are only a start. The push for fewer, clearer, and more rigorous math and science standards embodied in the Common Core State Standards is sensible and constructive. But would-be reformers should also be wary of enthusiasts who can give the impression that new standards, curricula, and tests will be sufficient to catalyze transformative improvement in STEM education. Business leaders should regard these standards as a useful start, but ensure that these measures do not stifle creative problem-solving or efforts to promote customization.
  • Personalizing instruction for individual needs. Within the architecture of rigorous common standards, there will be new opportunities to customize curricula and instruction. New York City's School of One has shown how new technologies make it possible to personalize math instruction by adopting a "customized playlist" approach in which students are assigned each day to the learning objectives that are most appropriate for their level of performance. The business community would do well to encourage and support ventures that seek new ways to customize student learning to meet individual needs.
  • Shaping a high-quality, practical STEM curriculum. Because science and technology firms will be hiring future graduates for STEM careers, business leaders have an innate understanding of what students will need to know to be successful. Consequently, they would do well to work proactively with schools, districts, and postsecondary institutions to shape STEM program offerings. While postsecondary institutions like DeVry, Indiana's Ivy Tech, and others have actively used industry advisory councils to closely link programs to labor market needs, STEM firms should seek out opportunities to work with their local institutions in setting curricula and standards.

Rethinking Teaching

  • Rewriting the full-time job description. As private sector fi rms know, talented STEM majors can command a much higher wage in the private sector than in today's schools. Business leaders should press policymakers and educators to rethink the teacher job description to take advantage of professionals who may be eager to teach but not to become full-time teachers. Boston-based Citizen Schools, for instance, provides highly regarded after-school instruction and career-based learning by creating opportunities for local professionals to instruct students on a part-time basis. The private sector can support such ventures and permit (or even encourage) their employees to participate while supporting district efforts to adopt such arrangements.
  • Getting more value out of great teachers. While merit pay plans are a sensible part of rewarding and retaining excellent STEM teachers, reformers should also consider ways to more fundamentally differentiate teacher roles while permitting the best teachers to be more productive. Rather than ask every teacher to teach the same material to the same number of children, excellent teachers should be rewarded for taking on more students successfully. Business leaders can follow the lead of respected fi gures like Bill Gates and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan by promoting policy changes and practices that will boost specialization and productivity for STEM teachers.
  • Carving new paths to teaching. Preparing STEM teachers will require more than simply tinkering with today's schools of education and licensure systems. High Tech High School in San Diego, for instance, has sidestepped the licensure hurdle by becoming a state-recognized teacher preparation institution. STEM firms should continue to push for a move away from traditional licensure systems and consider creating their own teacher preparation and professional development programs.

School Redesign

  • Leveraging the power of technology. Just a few decades ago, technological limitations meant that students could be taught only by a teacher who was physically present in their school. This was particularly limiting for rural or urban schools, which tend to have difficulty attracting enough talented STEM instructors. Today, new technologies have made it possible to share expertise and instruction across great distances, making dramatic advances in STEM instruction possible everywhere. Washington, D.C.- based SMARTHINKING, Inc., and New York-based, for example, use tutors from around the globe to provide real-time, intensive instruction to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Business leaders can support efforts to leverage new technology in this fashion while working to remove policy barriers and routines that impede such efforts.
  • Reimagining the schoolhouse. Unwinding the DNA of schooling into more granular strands makes it possible to more effectively identify and address distinctive educational needs. Rather than simply try to run better schools, it is worth fostering providers that specialize in delivering top-notch science or math instruction--and retooling the schoolhouse to make that more feasible. For example, highperforming San Jose-based Rocketship Education doesn't just try to offer better teachers or instruction; rather, it has developed a hybrid model that blends traditional classroom instruction, realtime assessments, and customized, supplemental instruction in computer-based "learning labs."
  • Segmenting services. Schooling encompasses a vast array of services, instructional responsibilities, and subjects. Allowing parents, students, and schools to "unbundle" those ingredients can make it easier to address individual needs while opening up the market for providers who excel in a specialized service--as is the case with many of the providers previously mentioned. Business leaders can help create the conditions for a truly segmented market by supporting new entrepreneurial ventures and by partnering with schools and districts to provide expertise that can help those systems become more open to segmented services and third-party providers.

Looking Forward

Business leaders seeking a STEM revolution cannot settle for comfortable tweaking but must embrace efforts to rethink the organization and delivery of schooling.

Business can use three key strategies to play this role: through advocacy, by lending expertise, and by partnering with institutions or pursuing market opportunities. First, business leaders are well-positioned to be effective champions for accountability, flexibility, and dynamic redesign. Second, business can play a critical role by lending sorely needed expertise in areas like performance evaluation, human resources, information technology, and data systems. Third, business is positioned to partner with a variety of innovative entities to model breakthrough possibilities, promote smart rethinking, and lend critical support.

Too often, STEM reform has entailed well-intentioned efforts to superimpose good ideas on a rickety, aged set of institutions and organizations. If today's earnest efforts are to deliver more than that, then good intentions and thoughtful proposals must be joined by a fierce commitment to remaking America's schools and school systems for the 21st century.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies, Andrew P. Kelly is a research fellow and Olivia Meeks is a research assistant at AEI.

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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