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WASHINGTON -- Math and science education throughout the country must improve dramatically if America hopes to compete in the 21st century, according to a study released Wednesday.

The report, conducted by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, outlines a comprehensive and ambitious plan to advance math and science learning. The main objectives include establishing high and common assessment standards in those subjects across all 50 states, as well as aggressively recruiting and supporting teachers.

More than 70 organizations from a variety of sectors, including government, schools, philanthropies and businesses, have lent their support to the recommendations of the study, titled "The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy." Higher education organizations include the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges and the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.

"We have to bring math and science to the forefront," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday, at a conference here announcing the study. He added, "Perpetuating what we have is not going to get us where we want to go."

Science and math teachers should be paid more than they currently are, particularly those who teach in underperforming communities, Duncan said. They should also work with engineers, doctors and other professionals in technical fields to show students how the sciences are relevant and applicable in real life, he said.

With the economy sinking into a recession and state budgets continuing to shrink, pinning down funding for education reform grows trickier by the day. But Phillip Griffiths, chair of the commission that produced the study, says that the money is out there -- mainly in the form of the $100 billion in emergency economic stimulus aid for public schools and colleges signed by President Obama in February. It just has to be spent efficiently, Griffiths said.

"We understand this is a time when you need to make investments up front," he said. "The returns you get on this investment ... are overwhelming."

The quality of math and science learning at colleges and universities ultimately begins with solid instruction at the K-12 level, said Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

"While higher education remains strong, it is clear it cannot continue without a strong foundation," he said.

The new report states that colleges and universities should build "partnerships between higher education and K-12 systems to increase the number of students entering two- and four-year colleges well prepared and able to take up mathematics and science learning." According to the study, they should also place a renewed emphasis on using and interpreting data analysis, statistics and scientific evidence.

Education reform may be costly, Gregorian said, but lagging behind in math and science may cost America even more.

"If you think it's too expensive, try ignorance," he said.

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