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PREPARE AND INSPIRE: President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Offers Recommendations on Improving K–12 STEM Education

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“The success of the United States in the 21st century—its wealth and welfare—will depend on the ideas and skills of its population.”

A new report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) argues that the nation must inspire all students to learn science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and motivate many of these students to pursue STEM careers in order to ensure that America is a leader in STEM education in the coming decades. The report, Prepare and Inspire: K–12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future, offers a strategy for how the federal government can meet these goals and respond to the “tremendous challenges and historic opportunities” that currently face the nation.

“The success of the United States in the 21st century—its wealth and welfare—will depend on the ideas and skills of its population,” the report reads. “These have always been the nation’s most important assets. As the world becomes increasingly technological, the value of these national assets will be determined in no small measure by the effectiveness of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in the United States.”

In examining the nation’s problems with STEM, the report finds both a proficiency problem and an interest problem. The proficiency problem—represented by American students’ lower scores on international tests in science and math and low proficiency rates in math and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—is more well-known; the interest problem is not. According to the report, high-achieving African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and women lack interest in and have been gravitating away from science and engineering toward other professions. It argues that the United States must devote considerable attention and resources to all of its highest-achieving and highest-ability students from across all groups, even as it focuses on low-performing students.

Even schools that are generally successful in educating their students often fall short in STEM fields, the report notes. Often these schools lack teachers who know how to teach science and mathematics effectively, and who know and love their subject well enough to inspire their students. Additionally, teachers lack adequate support, including appropriate professional development as well as interesting and intriguing curricula, while school systems lack tools for assessing progress and rewarding success. “As a result, too many American students conclude early in their education that STEM subjects are boring, too difficult, or unwelcoming, leaving them ill-prepared to meet the challenges that will face their generation, their country, and the world,” the report reads.

In addition to its proficiency and interest problems, the nation has historically lacked a coherent strategy and sufficient leadership capacity for K–12 STEM education, the report argues. In addition, it finds that relatively little federal funding has historically been targeted toward “catalytic efforts” with the potential to transform STEM education. At the same time, too little attention has been paid to replication and scale-up to disseminate proven programs widely, and too little capacity at key agencies has been devoted to strategy and coordination.

Even facing these challenges, the nation has great strengths on which it can draw, according to the report. First, the United States has the most vibrant and productive STEM community in the world thanks to its colleges and universities, start-up and large companies, and science-rich institutions such as museums and science centers. Second, a growing body of research has illuminated how children learn about STEM, making it possible to devise more effective instructional materials and teaching strategies. Finally, there is a clear bipartisan consensus that has emerged on the need for education reform in general and the importance of STEM education in particular.

The report also praises the state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative for establishing clear, consistent, and higher standards for mathematics and English language arts education in grades K–12 that can be shared across states. It notes that there is also “considerable interest” in the adoption of similar standards for science, which are essential for improving STEM education. Clear, shared standards for science and math would help all actors in the system set and achieve goals.

To bring its two-pronged strategy of “prepare and inspire” to fruition, the report offers five recommendations:

  • Improve Federal coordination and leadership on STEM education.
  • Support the state-led movement to ensure that the nation adopts a common baseline for what students learn in STEM.
  • Cultivate, recruit, and reward STEM teachers who prepare and inspire students.
  • Create STEM-related experiences that excite and interest students of all backgrounds.
  • Support states and school districts in their efforts to transform schools into vibrant STEM learning environments.

The council believes that many of its recommendations can be carried out with existing federal funding and through existing programs, although it acknowledges that new authorities may be required in certain cases. Fully funding the recommendations could cost up to approximately $1 billion per year—only 2 percent of the total federal spending on K–12 education.

The complete report is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-stemed-report.pdf.

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