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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
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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