2010-09-16 / General Stories

American Competition and Innovation Begins in the Classroom

By U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Over the past month, families across Texas have readied their children for the new school year. Supplies and back-to-school clothes have been bought. Fall sports and marching band practice are well underway. And many students are already hard at work on nightly homework assignments. While our students might have their sights set on next week’s football game or an upcoming science project, as a nation, we must focus on the overall preparedness of young Americans to be the leaders, thinkers, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Science and technology are at the core of America’s ability to compete in an increasingly globalized economy and to solve 21st century challenges like energy independence, biotechnology, communications, and healthcare.

Alarmingly, the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 report shows that U.S. leadership in research and development (R&D) and technological innovation is declining. If this trend continues, we risk forfeiting our global leadership in technological development to other nations. We cannot allow that to happen.

In order to compete, the U.S. must not only train the best scientists and engineers in the world, but emphasize math and science in American education so our students are qualified for the high-paying, high-tech jobs of the 21st century. I have been a vocal proponent of encouraging young students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). However, the rate of American students going into STEM fields still remains alarmingly low.

In Texas, only 41 percent of the high school graduates are ready for college-level math (algebra), and only 24 percent are ready for college-level science (biology). Furthermore, with current trends only two percent of today’s American 9th-grade boys and one percent of girls will attain even an undergraduate science or engineering degree. In contrast to these troubling numbers, 42 percent of all college undergraduates in China earn science or engineering degrees. In 2000, nearly 80 percent of the 114,000 science and engineering doctorates awarded worldwide were from institutions outside the United States. This situation has only worsened in the last decade.

Despite these troubling statistics, we can and must make America even more competitive and innovative than it is today. To grow high paying, highly skilled American jobs, we must increase investment in research by lowering the corporate tax rate, including a permanent extension of the R&D tax credit. The President has proposed a temporary one-year extension but this tax credit must be permanent. We need to encourage student interest in careers in math, science, and technology. And, we must foster an atmosphere of private-public partnerships between our educational institutions and those companies that need STEM graduates.

We must also build a solid foundation for a scientifically literate workforce, which begins with developing outstanding K-12 teachers in science and mathematics. Unfortunately, today there is such a shortage of highly qualified K-12 STEM teachers that many of the nation’s school districts have been forced to hire uncertified or underqualified teachers in these subjects.

Today, many American middle and high school mathematics and science teachers are teaching outside their own primary fields of study. While a U.S. high school student has a 70 percent likelihood of being taught English by a teacher with a degree in English, that student has only about a 40 percent chance of studying chemistry with a teacher who was a chemistry major.

The University of Texas has led efforts to combat this problem by offering a combination of an undergraduate degree in a STEM field with teacher certification through electives. Beginning in 1997, the University of Texas’ UTeach program has produced more high school teachers with degrees in STEM fields and has become the national benchmark for teaching excellence. It was recommended in the National Academies’ “Rising above the Gathering Storm” report.

Recently, I included a provision in a bill reported out of the Commerce Committee that would create a national initiative to encourage colleges and universities to adopt the UTeach program. Modeled after UT’s successful concept, it would help participating institutions recruit and prepare science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors to become certified as elementary and secondary school teachers.

I have also introduced legislation that will correct a discriminatory provision in a U.S. House bill that singles out Texas and denies our state $800 million in education funding. Our students and teachers deserve a quality education, and my bill will try to allow Texas schools get their fair share of support.

The challenge of educating a 21st century workforce can be daunting, but we should consider it an opportunity to strengthen America as a global leader of innovation. And the work begins in classrooms in Texas and across the nation.

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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