Op/Ed: A Strong Education for a Strong Economy

Two industry experts say we must reconsider how we prepare future generations for their careers. 

Creative play can foster innovation.

We need to steer young kids who are interested in STEM into STEM fields, experts argue.

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In January, leaders in science, technology, education and math (STEM) gathered in our nation’s capital for the Diplomatic Courier’s “The World in 2050,” a global summit addressing the future of jobs in these fields. Teach For America was among those leaders and, along with Diplomatic Courier, we considered our global STEM future.

[SPECIAL REPORT: STEM Solutions]

We confronted a difficult reality: Not all nations are equally preparing their youth with the skills they’ll need to compete in the 21st century. This poses a risk to our future—some economies will flourish while others flounder. Young Americans will be competing for fulfilling, stable jobs in STEM fields against a cadre of youth in China and India who may be better prepared to fill them. Globally, we must reconsider how we prepare future generations for their careers.

At the root of this issue are children and schools. When we talk about the “supply” of employees and “demand” of new jobs, we must remember that this isn’t just an issue of economics—it’s an issue of education. It’s an issue of justice.

[MORE: Million Women Mentors Aim to Boost STEM Interest]

Our students can lead a future of great discovery, but here in America, we’re not preparing them to do so. This is unacceptable. Our nation lagged in recent world rankings of science and math performance—our students came in below-average in math at 26th in the world, compared to Shanghai’s first place.

We have an incredible history of innovation behind us and we have a shot at an incredible future. But that future must include all our citizens—and it begins with all of our students. Every child—regardless of their economic circumstances, ethnicity or gender identity—deserves a strong STEM curriculum. Our prior generations didn’t have this equality, and it’s reflected in in current professional statistics: just 3 percent of engineers today are African American and only 13 percent are female.

In our respective fields, we’re both deeply troubled by these facts, because times aren’t changing fast enough. In 11 states, not a single African-American student took the Advanced Placement computer science exam and, in eight states, not a single Latino student did, either. In two of those states, every single test-taker was male.

This isn’t because Latinos, African-Americans and girls aren’t interested in STEM. It’s because they’re not being afforded equal opportunities to engage with it.

In this country, we need more diverse, high-quality teachers to inspire future innovators. There must be a pipeline of talented science and math educators into struggling schools, and our country must rally support behind them.

Today’s young people are a generation that intuitively knows how to use tablet computers, smart phones and multiple applications all at once. We can harness those skills. Technology offers us the chance to capture the attention of young students interested in entering STEM fields, but we aren’t doing it efficiently enough: 70 percent of elementary school students report interest in STEM subjects, but by college, just 4 percent of them end up studying computer science.

We are failing young women even more. Among women, for every 100 graduates in a STEM field, just 12 will remain in their chosen career a decade later.

Students don’t just need to know how to interact with technology; they need to learn how to think critically and deeply about processing data. All the data in the world is useless without the ability to understand what it means. And this is where teachers are, and will remain, forever invaluable.

We must take action, and find ways to support the teachers who commit to this critical mission in challenging environments. The current state of education in the U.S. is not good for attracting and retaining teaching talent. Changing this environment for teachers is the start of changing the future of work for our younger generations.

By cultivating the immense influence of tomorrow’s teachers, Teach For America will make a difference. By raising awareness of the barriers facing young men and women around the world, Diplomatic Courier will inspire action. Together with our partners, we will create a strong education for a strong economy.

Elisa Villanueva Beard is co-CEO of Teach For America, a nonprofit working to increase educational opportunity in high-need communities nationwide. Ana C. Rold is the founder and editor-in-chief of Diplomatic Courier, a global-focused publication that connects the next generation of leaders to current policy professionals.


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STEM jobs
STEM education