For the U.S. Economy the News Is Bad and Worse

America’s global leadership depends on STEM education--and we’re slipping.

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Large parts of our student population are coming out of school without a top-notch education in the hard sciences, just at the time when we need a well-trained, technically competent workforce to manage and staff the science and technology businesses that are the most rapidly growing businesses and the ones that yield the higher-paying jobs.

The most critical step that we must take is strengthening the public school curriculum. The central issue here: increasing the number of qualified math and science teachers. Years of research has shown that of everything within the control of a school, what counts most is the quality and effectiveness of teachers.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Foreign STEM Graduates Get Green Cards?]

Astonishingly, according to recent studies, 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. How in the world can we expect our students to master science and technology when their teachers may not have mastered it?

We have no time to lose. As former President Bill Clinton wrote last year, "No one can take the future away from us. But we can take it away from ourselves." We simply cannot solve this problem by using the same kind of thinking that we used when we created the problem. There are three courses of action:

1. We must develop a national program to recognize and reward strong instructors in the STEM fields and create more STEM-focused high schools and community colleges. (U.S.News & World Report has been pleased to focus on the issue by partnering with more than 50 other organizations in two conferences this summer and last fall.)

2. We must also be willing to open ourselves up to an immigration policy that permits, indeed encourages, teachers with the brains, talent, and special skills to enhance American education in the world of STEM. Those who would close doors here have closed minds. Imaginative teachers will enhance American innovation and competitiveness. It is literally a national disgrace that we restrict the number of foreign teachers who can come in and help us out. Nothing short of a major national effort to prepare tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of new teachers in STEM fields must be on our agenda.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are Teachers Overpaid?]

3. We must devise some kind of state-by-state scorecard to assess the quality of STEM education and measure the effectiveness of STEM programs on a nationwide basis. U.S. News ranks the country's best high schools for STEM, and we plan to expand the list in the coming year. But we need more such tools. We have the best colleges and universities in the world, a lead we must maintain, but this is not a question of just producing more Ph.D.'s. We need the technical skills that lead to original creativity, which means supporting community colleges that excel in the critical areas of science and technology.

Winston Churchill once famously said that "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after exhausting all other possibilities." Well, we have done enough of that. We have wasted time in pursuing dead-end alternatives.

This is the time to do the right thing, and we know what it is. What it takes is national leadership. Otherwise, we will have students who will translate the scientific principle that light travels faster than sound into the perception that they may appear bright until you hear them speak.

  • Read Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal: To Improve Schools, We Should Listen to Students
  • Take the U.S. News Poll: Does Silicon Valley Need More Female CEOs?
  • Check out political cartoons about the 2012 presidential campaign.