Look what we take for granted in our everyday lives: the Internet and cellphones, MRI scanners and microwave ovens, FM radio and transistorized hearing aids, lasers at the checkout counter, and cancer treatments made from bacteria we've programmed for benevolence. All these American innovations and thousands more come to us from science, mathematics, engineering, and technology—no, let's rephrase that: They came to us from people schooled in those disciplines and from people associated with them who supplied the entrepreneurial energies and capital that the scientist, engineer, and technologist may have lacked.
The men and women who will make America's tomorrow are in school and college today. They are the human capital at the core of any productive economy. And here's a fact about them. There are too few of these people in the scientific disciplines. America, the leader, now lags.
The National Academies, the nonprofit institutions that provide expert advice on science and technology, warned years ago that the United States would continue to lose ground to foreign economic rivals unless the quality of its math and science education were improved. The experts reported last year that among 29 wealthy countries, the United States ranked 27th in the proportion of college students with degrees in science and engineering. And among developed countries, the United States ranks 31st in math and 23rd in science, not to mention the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their peers. American 12th graders were near the bottom of students from 20 nations assessed in advanced math and physics. Large parts of our student population are literally being deprived of a top-notch education.
A highly educated and skilled labor force is what drives innovation and production. But think also of the individuals and what they can derive through upward mobility, income growth for families, and access to opportunity. As the nation shifts into a new, non-industrial economy, we will need a well-trained, technically competent workforce to manage and staff the science and technology businesses that create the high-paying jobs.
Our future depends on the strength of our scientific spine. Spelled out, it's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, as it has become known. The skills derived from a STEM education are the mission-critical elements of the jobs of tomorrow, for they are directly linked to economic productivity and competitive products.
The National Academies are urging the government to take action on several fronts: Early childhood education should be improved, public school math and science curriculums should be strengthened, with vastly more teacher training in these areas, and both the government and colleges should provide more financial and academic support to students who excel in STEM.
The Academies want to increase the number of qualified math and science teachers by 10,000 annually. Why? Because 15 years of research has shown that of everything within the control of a school, the factor with the most effect on learning is the quality and effectiveness of teachers. So if we want our students to better understand math and science, we must also find ways to improve our teachers' knowledge of these subjects. This means we are going to have to rethink the process of recruiting, evaluating, and supporting these kinds of teachers. Recent studies indicate that about 30 percent of high school math students and 60 percent of those in the physical sciences are taught by instructors who either did not major in the subject or are not certified to teach it. As Yolie Flores, CEO of the Communities for Teaching Excellence and a former school board member in Los Angeles, has pointed out: How can we expect our students to master the content when their teachers may not have mastered it? When they can't even prepare lessons in the subject because they lack a background of knowledge in it? It is critical to develop STEM teachers with a deep knowledge of content and understanding of the pedagogy.
There are a variety of programs we must push. For example, there is real potential in the idea of a "Master Teacher Corps" that recognizes and rewards strong instructors in the STEM fields. There is also a proposal from White House advisers to create more STEM-focused schools. Notable is a nonprofit program called Math for America, founded by James Simons, an award-winning mathematician who went on to create an enormously successful investment firm. The program has provided funding for bonuses and stipends for high school STEM teachers. The MacArthur Foundation has given out prizes to developers of video games that encourage learning science and math. Cable TV's Science Channel airs several hours of science programming so that students have a ready means to learn more about it in their after-school hours.