We have many good examples of schools and programs that succeed, but no consensus on which ones to focus on and scale up to reach all 55 million public school students. Corporations and philanthropies are anxious to find better measures of success.
STEM is a subset of the whole unresolved education reform problem of standards, outcomes, and teacher performance; it’s just that STEM performance is more easily measurable. You either master a given level of math, or you don’t. The new, state-approved Common Core Math and Science Standards are viewed as a very important tool to promote and measure improvement, but there is concern that they will not be fully implemented by many states.
STEM is a national problem with local and regional solutions. Some argue that it is also a national security problem.
Businesses must be engaged in helping influence the education system for their own good; they need the workers. Schools must listen to the needs of employers. Education must be aligned to workforce needs. Business-school ties that involve apprenticeships and co-op learning that result in real jobs are demonstrating success.
Structured partnerships involving all parts of a community are essential and have been shown to work. Progressive states are encouraging and managing these. Several organizations are scaling state and local efforts by tying them into a national network.
The federal government has not been much of a factor. There needs to be a bigger federal role to focus and organize state and private efforts. The key short-term wish of many companies is for Congress to allow highly skilled foreign students to remain in the United States and fill positions that will then, in turn, create more jobs.
Parents should be aware of why STEM matters to them and their kids. There is no consistency to the various corporate and philanthropic messages about why STEM is important. STEM should be marketed as a path to better paying jobs and career stability. Math means money. Parents need to take more responsibility for their children’s education.
Consumers—parents, students, and those already in the workforce—need better information to connect education choices to career options, including job-search data based on skills.
Conference participants wanted more solutions. We identified some, but we have a long way to go.
Perhaps the most significant outcome was the gathering itself. The STEM community is wide and deep, reflecting the nature of the problem. It encompasses everyone from corporate CEOs to inner city community organizers; preschool teachers to literal rocket scientists. Speakers included basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who tells children to forget sports and study math, and inventor Dean Kamen, who’s helping hundreds of thousands of school kids build robots—that shoot basketballs. Community college presidents and the deans of prestigious engineering schools listened to executives at companies like AT&T and Boeing explain the kind of skills they require to fill the tens of thousands of jobs they have open right now. Top officials from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and major universities made clear to K-12 school superintendents why more math for more students—particularly Hispanics, African-Americans, and, amazingly, an enormous percentage of young girls—was a make-or-break proposition for success. No one came away doubting that mastering fractions in middle school and algebra by freshman year was essential to a child’s success in the workplace of the future. STEM is not really about the rocket scientists, although a few more would never hurt. It’s really about the middle class. It’s less about the folks who design the airplanes than the ones who build them. The guys who used to pour the steel now have to know how to program and instruct a robot to do it.
The next most significant outcome of the event was the realization of a shortcoming. Everyone in the room understood the problem, but 99 percent of the rest of the country would hardly have known what we were talking about. Creating public awareness, informing parents about why this kind of education is so crucial, and finding ways to make students want to do their math homework rather than dread it is a major missing link. Only consumer demand is going to drive the kind of change that’s needed, whether it’s better math teachers or better software to teach math. The STEM brand is in trouble. It’s a hard sell. But would anyone agree that the world will become less technological? That good jobs will become less sophisticated?