2010-05-21 / School

Math and Science Education Key to Future American Innovation

By U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Science and technology are at the core of America’s ability to compete in an increasingly globalized economy and to solve many of the challenges we face as a nation in energy independence, biotechnology, communications and healthcare.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education, or STEM education, plays an essential role in fostering further development of today’s innovation-based economy. Unfortunately, several recent studies caution that a danger exists that Americans may not be versed enough in these STEM fields to significantly contribute to, or benefit fully from, the knowledge-based society that is taking shape all around us.

In Texas, only 41 percent of high school graduates are ready for college-level math (algebra), and only 24 percent are ready for college-level science (biology). Furthermore, only two percent of all U.S. 9th-grade boys and one percent of girls will go on to attain an undergraduate science or engineering degree. Contrast these troubling numbers to China, where 42% of all college undergraduates earn science or engineering degrees.

As nations like China and India invest strategically in STEM education for their students, the United States must assess whether its education system can meet the demands of the 21st Century. If we fail to address these challenges, we risk compromising the development of the next generation of American scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, making it more difficult for us to address persistent national problems.

I believe that a solid foundation for a scientifically literate workforce begins with developing outstanding K-12 teachers in science and mathematics. Unfortunately, today there is such a shortage of highly qualified K- 12 teachers that many of the nation’s school districts have hired uncertified or under qualified teachers.

Statistics also demonstrate that a large percentage of middle and high school mathematics and science teachers are teaching outside their own primary fields of study.

While a United States high school student has a 70% likelihood of being taught English by a teacher with a degree in English, that high school student has only about a 40% chance of studying chemistry with a teacher who was a chemistry major.

Those statistics are unacceptable and they are also unnecessary. We can and must do better to encourage programs that increase the number of teachers in STEM fields who are certified to teach in those areas.

I am pleased that the University of Texas has been a leader in this area and has a model program that combats this problem by effectively combining undergraduate degrees in the STEM fields with teacher certification, through electives.

Beginning in 1997, the UTeach program has become the national benchmark for teaching excellence and has been mentioned in several high profile reports, including the National Academies’ “Rising above the Gathering Storm” report.

The Exxon-Mobil Foundation established the National Science and Math Initiative (NMSI), to help fund proven programs, such as UTeach, in America’s schools. The NMSI’s goal is to positively impact America’s public schools by replicating national programs that have documented success in math and science education.

I will soon introduce legislation that will create a national program to encourage colleges and universities to adopt the UTeach program to recruit and prepare science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors to become certified as elementary and secondary school teachers.

In addition to increasing the number of certified teachers in STEM fields, we must also improve the K-12 curricula in the science and math fields because domestic and world economies increasingly depend on these areas of knowledge. Primary and secondary schools are failing to produce enough students with the interest, motivation, knowledge, and skills they will need to succeed in the 21st Century’s global economy.

I think we can make America even more competitive and innovative than it is today. We can and we must-our future is at stake.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas and is the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

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