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President Obama's Leadership in Improving STEM Education

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President Barack Obama took another crucial step last week in galvanizing support - from government, business, higher education, and philanthropy - to dramatically improve the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in U.S. public schools. Numerous studies have shown that American students are not keeping up with competitors in these fields, which have been so crucial to U.S. economic leadership in the past century. As The Washington Post recently reported, "International math testing in 2007 found that U.S. fourth-graders trailed counterparts in some areas of Europe and Asia and that U.S. eighth-graders lagged behind those from a handful of Asian powers. Similar results were found in science."

The President announced "five new public-private partnerships that will use proven models to prepare more than 10,000 new math and science teachers over the next five years and will support the professional development of more than 100,000 current teachers in STEM fields." The partnerships "represent a combined commitment of more than $250 million in financial and in-kind support, adding to the more than $260 million in support announced in November at the launch of the 'Educate to Innovate' campaign."

The partnerships announced by The White House include the following:

o Intel's Science and Math Teachers Initiative - a ten-year, $200 million cash and in-kind campaign to support teaching in math and science;

o Expansion of the National Math and Science Initiative's UTeach Program - to prepare more than 4,500 undergraduates in STEM subjects to be new math and science teachers by 2015, and 7,000 by 2018;

o A Commitment by Public University Presidents - in which the presidents of more than 75 major public universities committed to collectively prepare 10,000 science and math teachers annually by 2015;

o The PBS Innovative Educators Challenge - through which PBS and its 356 partner stations, in collaboration with the National Science Teachers Association, will launch a multi-year STEM initiative;

o The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships in Math and Science - through which the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation will announce a major expansion of this program, which provides future math and science teachers with a Master's degree in education and places them in difficult-to-staff schools.

President Obama should be applauded for making the sciences and science teaching a high priority in his Administration - through key Cabinet and senior staff appointments, funding from the Recovery Act, and the "Educate to Innovate" campaign, among other initiatives. He also deserves praise for challenging the business, higher education, and philanthropic communities to join him in this effort. All of us should re-evaluate what we can do in that regard.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), which I lead, is focused on supporting early-career scientists, and the supply of those scientists depends to a large degree on the quality of American public education, especially in the STEM fields. That's, in part, why our annual Cottrell Scholar Awards support university research projects that involve collaborations with, and outreach to, local high school teachers and students.

It's also why RCSA recently published Science Teaching As A Profession: Why It Isn't, How It Could Be by noted education writer Sheila Tobias and veteran science teacher Anne Baffert. It addresses an issue equally crucial to the training of science teachers - their retention. The authors learned, through communications with nearly 500 science teachers across the United States, that attrition is not primarily a function of money. More pressing are concerns about the loss of autonomy, control, and stature within their schools. These issues must also be addressed to ensure that, as we attract and train more STEM teachers, we do not lose the best of them by failing to focus on their needs on the job.

Following President Obama's announcement, at which he also honored a group of outstanding STEM teachers, Conan O'Brien quipped, "Today President Obama honored more than 80 teachers for excellence in math and science. Then he begged them to leave China and come teach here in the United States."

President Obama is rightly making STEM education a high priority. Related sectors -including government, business, education, and philanthropy - need to do all that we can to support this effort, so that some day soon Conan O'Brien's joke will no longer be funny.

James M. Gentile, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation (www.rescorp.org.)

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