11/15/2011 02:17 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2012

Raise (Don't Lower!) the Bar for Math & Science Education

Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama addressed the National Science Foundation (NSF) to announce new steps that will make it easier for women to pursue careers in engineering and the sciences. New initiatives will help women advance their careers in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- even while balancing the demands of home life. The new NSF guidelines will, for example, offer support to a researcher who is threatened with the loss of a grant because she needs to care for young children or elderly parents. This NSF policy change hopefully represents a long overdue recognition on the part of NSF that more needs to be done to make it possible for all Americans to realize their full potential in science and mathematics achievement. This country can no longer afford to ignore the needs and potential contributions of large segments of the U.S. population in STEM careers.

The business sector has also recognized the importance of expanding the STEM workforce. Earlier this year, Change the Equation, a coalition of America's most successful chief executives from companies such as ExxonMobil, Xerox, and Time Warner, issued an S.O.S. to policy-makers and educators: America must make science and math education a top priority or risk grave economic consequences. Policy-makers should be mindful that the International Monetary Fund recently forecast that China's economy would surpass that of the U.S. by 2016.

Education policy is a driving factor behind China's growth. Chinese leaders have made education a top priority. When Chinese students were included in comparative testing by the Programme for International Student Assessment, they outscored every other nation in terms of reading, science and math proficiency -- even Singapore, the world's math superstar, and Finland, the previous champion in science. Meanwhile 2010 data released by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows U.S. students rank only 23rd in science achievement and 32nd in math ability compared to those in 65 other nations.

Future jobs will require greater facility in math and science, but only five percent of U.S. college students are graduating with degrees in math and science, compared with 42 percent of Chinese students. The consequences of the America's math and science decline are frightening, but thankfully our leaders are sounding the battle cry. President Obama has declared that "we need a commitment to innovation that we haven't seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon."

Organizations like the National Math & Science Initiative, which I was honored to join as CEO this fall, are working to solve our education crisis with groundbreaking programs like the AP Training and Incentive Program and UTeach. Recognizing that students who enroll in Advanced Placement courses are three times more likely to become college graduates than their peers, NMSI crafted a program intent on encouraging students to take and pass math and science AP courses.

Advanced Placement scores released this fall showed that schools in our program raised passing scores on exams in AP math, science and English 124 percent, compared to a 23 percent increase nationally. Even more remarkable, we registered an amazing 216 percent increase in passing AP exams among African-American and Hispanic students, and a 144 percent increase among female students. Not only is our program safeguarding America's economic future, but also doing so while closing an achievement gap long-held as insurmountable.

NMSI's AP program and our second flagship program, UTeach -- a new approach to attracting and training math and science majors to the teaching profession -- show great promise in encouraging STEM achievement for all American students. Yet more must be done to address the projected shortfall of 280,000 math and science teachers that our nation will face by 2015. We need public and private investments in math and science education and we need a commitment to making a difference on a national scale.

America must set the bar higher for innovation and academic growth. We need a national plan and a broad commitment to put the U.S. at the top of the charts in STEM achievement once again. In short, we need public and private partnerships to invest in programs that make a difference in national as well as local and individual achievement in STEM fields.

Dr. Mary Ann Rankin is the president and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). Prior to joining NMSI she was the dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.