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Regaining Our Lead in STEM Education | Commentary

From 1997 to 2009, enrollment in the Advanced Placement test for music theory grew by 362 percent and enrollment in the computer science AB AP test grew by only 12 percent, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Pop quiz: Which of those fields is part of one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. jobs market?

If you guessed music theory, you are decidedly off key. While the arts are important, we must also be mindful of the current demands of our job market.

The news demonstrates the importance of addressing the gaping hole in our science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce, and the answer may arrive in the form of immigration reform proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that attempts to immediately plug the STEM jobs hole while also taking steps to tackle the long-term STEM education problems.

The U.S. faces a shortage of workers and of students proficient in math and science, placing 25th in math and 17th in science in a ranking of 31 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This is adversely affected since about a third of math students and two-thirds of students in physical science are being taught by teachers who did not major in the subject or are not certified to teach them.

If the U.S. remains on its current path, the nation won’t be able to fill as many as 3 million jobs in STEM fields, according to some estimates. And nearly two-thirds of those jobs will require advanced degrees.

Anyone can recognize the truly distressing news in this equation: Just as the nation needs to redouble its efforts in education, especially in STEM fields because of economic realities, a majority of states are not even able to maintain the status quo.

This national challenge appears to have captured the attention of our elected leaders. In the recently announced immigration reform bill from the Senate’s “gang of eight,” the senators attempt to address the immediate vacancies in STEM jobs by allowing companies to bring in more foreign workers. They also understand the need for a long-term fix and included a national fund meant to boost STEM education throughout the country and help produce more workers trained in the high-skill fields so that eventually we do not have to rely on foreign workers as we do now.

While the fund might be smaller than some had anticipated, it is undeniable that this is an important step in the right direction.

Six years ago, Exxon Mobil wanted to positively affect math and science education in the U.S. We created the National Math and Science Initiative to address the critical shortage of STEM-capable students in this country by taking great programs to scale. The initiative is also supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

NMSI’s comprehensive AP program works with high-school teachers to complete intensive math and science training and provides incentives for those teachers as they work within their schools to help more students pass national AP exams.

Over three years, we have produced a 135 percent increase in passing AP scores in math and science, and the program is now reaching students in 19 states and 462 schools.

As proud as we are of the results, the point isn’t about what the NMSI has done. It’s about what we as a nation must do.

America has a large-scale challenge when it comes to STEM education. Any successful solution will have to be implemented on an equally large scale. There is a role for the public and private sector, but our challenge is to find what works and to replicate it.

Improving outcomes on AP tests can also help address disparities in STEM fields. College graduation rates quadruple to 60 percent among African-American and Latino students who complete just one AP test. The rate doubles to 70 percent for white students.

With the right approach, we can do a better job of shrinking the opportunity gap in this country through STEM education. If we want to remain competitive well into the future, we have to fix the problem. The demographics of our nation demand that the representation of minorities and women must grow.

It is encouraging to see leaders in Congress work across the aisle to pay much-needed attention to our national crisis in STEM education with the inclusion of a STEM-specific fund in comprehensive immigration reform. I am hopeful that years from now we will look back at this time as the turning point when the U.S. stopped losing ground to other nations and regained its lead.

Tom Luce is chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative. He is also a former assistant secretary for the Department of Education.

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