In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for America to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build" the rest of the world, just so we can compete with other countries.
More importantly, he recognized that to do this successfully the U.S. must increase our science, technology, engineering and math teacher force by 100,000 teachers. Hear hear!
But America won't be able to out-do anyone until we recognize what we are not doing.
A former sixth-grade teacher and social entrepreneur devoted to ensuring that every child receives a high quality education, I read Rising Above the Gathering Storm back in 2006 with the same incredulity that I had once read A Nation at Risk in 1983. America's youth, I realized, were being denied both a present and a future, because they did not have access to a quality education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
That year, I began to conduct informal focus groups with STEM professionals -- longtime computer engineers, petrochemical engineers, finance folks, scientists and others who were at the top of their field and who wanted to teach, but ultimately didn't go into teaching. Why? Because they found the educational credentialing and hiring system to be opaque, odd and even occasionally hostile. While there are many reasons why one should choose not to become a teacher (you don't relate to kids, teaching doesn't bring you joy, you're not ready for the tremendous commitment teaching requires), an opaque and challenging hiring system should not be one of them.
One year later, a 2007 report came out showing that California alone was facing a looming shortage of 33,000 qualified math and science teachers in the coming decade -- a number that simply could not be filled with individuals following the traditional teacher pathway.
So, in 2007, we launched the EnCorps Teachers Program to find late and mid-career science, technology, engineering and math professionals who were ready to transition into education as a new career and connect them with opportunities in low-income schools. Like any initiative that takes a completely new approach to a daunting challenge, it was tough. Ultimately, we created a program specifically designed to counsel career changers through the process of becoming math and science teachers. Every EnCorps Educator must commit to spending at least six months tutoring and "guest teaching" in a school or program where 40 percent of students face poverty on a daily basis.
The professionals we've recruited and trained to be EnCorps educators are remarkable -- individuals who graduated at the top of their classes, invented laser printers, ran Hewlett-Packard innovation labs, worked aboard nuclear submarines and spent 30 years in finance -- and who are all now deeply committed to education.
Still, addressing the STEM education crisis is no small task.
A 2010 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment study revealed that those countries who outperform America (we rank #23 in science and #31 in math worldwide) do two things very effectively: 1) they draw every single teacher from the top 33 percent of college graduates and 2) they prepare their teachers to teach exceedingly well.
In contrast, America draws only 14 percent of our teachers from the top third of college graduates and we don't really know, across the board, how well we are preparing them to succeed.
Why do we attract so few top students into teaching? Low salary, low status, and low career growth opportunities, for starters. Today, college students studying math and science have the opportunity to move into professions that pay more than teaching, that provide outlets for great ambition and that come with higher social status.
Some of these math and science majors may eventually decide to move into teaching for a time, but not enough of them will. In fact, a 2007 study of California's math and science teacher pipeline concluded that even if every single person currently preparing to become a teacher in the state of California went into teaching math and science, that still wouldn't fill the need.
Given the small pool of current science and math teacher candidates, it is essential to invest in helping talented professionals in technology, engineering and science-related industries make the transition into teaching careers in order to fill Obama's tall order of 100,000 new STEM teachers within the next ten years.
President Obama was quite right, and we know what we need to do in order to out-do the rest of the world in education. Now we just need to do it.