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Building a Nation, Building an Economy with STEM Education

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July 28, 2015 03:34 pm

Bob Wise

On July 27, Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise addressed 200 STEM education leaders in Orlando, Florida, during the GE Foundation 2015 Summer Conference, “Bridging the Gap: Success for Tomorrow with STEM Skills Today.” The following blog post was inspired by his remarks.

In Singapore, teachers are called “nation builders,” a recognition of the role they play in preparing the leaders and workers who will sustain the country’s economic health and longevity. In an Information Age economy, educators—particularly those who teach the so-called STEM courses of science, technology, engineering, and math—are the main builders of our nation’s economic success.

We’ve all heard concerns about a shortage of STEM skills among our workforce and a lack of qualified STEM workers to meet industry demands. Building the STEM workforce is critically important; but, equally important is building a sustainable base of active consumers.

Two-thirds of this nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is based on people buying and selling goods and services to each other. While many factors contribute to a nation’s economic viability—productivity, regulatory policies, external events—ultimately, healthy economic growth depends on the ability of individuals to buy, and use, what a nation produces.

In the United States, educational attainment and income are directly linked more than in any other nation. The more you learn, the more you earn, and, by extension, the more you invest in the economy. Fortunately, the U.S. graduation rate has been increasing and reached 81 percent for the Class of 2013—the highest ever recorded.

But, increasing the high school graduation rate to 90 percent would mean—for just one class of dropoutsbillions in new income, and, consequently, billions in increased annual spending, as well as 65,700 new jobs and moving many from tax consumers to tax payers.

Furthermore, those who go on to college and graduate with a STEM degree will earn, on average, $65,000 annually—$15,000 more per year than students in other majors. Now who is powering the economy?

Investing in students’ STEM education literally pays dividends for our nation’s economic prosperity. Looking at international math performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) provides a glimpse at the economic benefits the United States could realize. This highly regarded assessment, given to 15-year-olds by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), measures not only what students know, but how well they demonstrate the deeper learning competencies of creative thinking and problem solving.

U.S. students scored 481 in math on PISA, placing the United States between the Slovak Republic and Lithuania, and thirty-eight points below Finland, which often is lauded for its superior educational system.

If we increased U.S. PISA scores by only twenty-five points over the next twenty years—something Poland did in just six years—we could raise the GDP $40 trillion over what it otherwise would have been. If we raised our performance a full thirty-eight points to match Finland, we would raise our economy $103 trillion—more than six times our current GDP!

Such an economic transformation is possible. But to realize these benefits, we must invest in our students and provide them with engaging career-based learning in and out of the classroom. That is how we will build our economy.

Schools such as STEM Academy of Hollywood in Los Angeles, California, demonstrate one way to set students on the path for the academic and career success that will fuel our economy. At STEM Academy, Linked Learning students study engineering and medicine as part of their everyday curriculum. Students studying the health professions work in hands-on internships at Kaiser Permanente where Kaiser physicians mentor students throughout the year. The formula for success is really quite simple, and one the Alliance has witnessed firsthand in similar programs: rigorous academics, work-based learning, and integrated student support that enable traditionally underserved students to acquire the STEM and career skills they need to succeed in college and beyond—and to succeed as consumers.

Forty years ago, decent paying jobs with low skill requirements were much more abundant, and traditionally underserved student populations—students from low-income families and students of color—represented a much lower percentage of the student population. But, modern demographics tell a different story for today’s students. In the most recently-completed school year, students of color and low-income students made up almost a majority of the K–12 student population for the first time ever. Shortchanging their education needs was never morally right; but now that they represent half our future consumers, it is economically impossible.

A nation’s economic growth needs people to buy and consume goods and services. But if we don’t invest in STEM education and prepare all students for college and career success, history predicts that half of our students potentially will become low-level consumers. Earning is directly based on learning and even modest gains in STEM performance yield major economic growth.

We cannot afford to overlook the educational needs of traditionally underserved students. They are our future workers and consumers. We must provide all students access to academically rigorous course work and career-based learning designed to support them in college, career, and life. Our nation’s economic success depends on it.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.


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