As members of the National Science Board-appointed commission on science education "met" (via telephone) for the first time last week, some key themes emerged. Chief among them was the need for dramatic change in how America's young people are taught science and mathematics -- and a sense that the commission's preliminary plan may not be bold enough.
"This plan lacks meat," one commission member said of the preliminary recommendations that emerged from discussions of the panel's subcommittees. Two other members mentioned that the plan focused on improving elementary and secondary education, but largely ignored higher education.
The National Science Board created its Commission on 21st Century Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in March, in response to Congressional concerns about the state of American science education and amid a slew of other reports about the country's declining competitive stance. The panel's members, who include educators, business leaders and former members of Congress, said they hoped to focus on positive solutions rather than the problems in American education, which are well known and could cause the public to tune out.
The panel's members seemed agreed on several major goals. One is to align all components of education in science technology, engineering and math (STEM). The current system in the United States, they agreed, lacks any attempt at coordination either horizontally across school districts, or vertically from one level of education to another. Lack of a coherent system for STEM education means that students who move between states may miss fundamental concepts as they jump from school to school.
A number of commission members recommended that the National Science Foundation serve as the national coordinating body for STEM education, which is now split between the foundation and the Department of Education. Because the NSF is non-partisan, one commission member pointed out, it may weather the political and budget battles that sometimes sidetrack policies from the Department of Education.
The second major goal is to improve the lot of STEM teachers. Many commission members emphasized that it is time to “professionalize” STEM teachers and make their jobs as prestigious and well-paying as their counterparts in industry. Approximately one quarter million math and science teaching positions will need to be filled by 2016. However, few people are qualified to take these jobs, and schools are having problems hiring for these positions.
The commission has recommended an increase in pay for STEM teachers and the development of continued professional training as happens in the medical field. During the discussion, almost every commission member said that pay must increase for STEM teachers so that they do not leave the profession to enter industry. However, there appeared to be little clarity about how to finance these pay increases.
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