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Rehema Ellis Headshot

STEM Education Crucial to American Competitiveness

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On the first Friday of each month, the media, lawmakers and political campaigns cautiously wait to see if more Americans have gone back to work. While the monthly Department of Labor focuses on the number of unemployed Americans and new jobs created, there is an element missing. That is the number of employers who cannot find qualified workers.

This week in the U.S. House, Republican lawmaker Lamar Alexander (Texas) introduced the STEM Jobs Act. (STEM is short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) The legislation would allow visas to foreign nationals with advanced degrees in STEM fields. Those workers would have the opportunity to earn green cards.

I'm a journalist, so not in the business of endorsing legislation, but it is worth exploring why, in an election year marked by very deep divisions on immigration, members of both parties take it for granted that the U.S. needs to look abroad for more STEM workers.

At the beginning of the school year last year, I wrote here about U.S. students' poor rankings on math and science. (The Programme for International Student Assessment have not yet been updated in the last year.)

The existence of legislation like the STEM Jobs Act shows our political culture has absorbed these dismal statistics so fully that it's a matter of course now that we look for talent from abroad. (To be clear: I am not advocating that the U.S. not do everything to attracted talent pools from all over the globe. My goal, as a newswoman, is to simply figure out why we are failing to foster the same talent here.)

As a reporter on the education beat, I know the statistics don't tell the full story. There are school systems across the nation that excel at science, technology, engineering and math education. A report earlier this year from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute takes a step back from individual schools but looks at which states excel at science education, and which need to do better. The Institute called standards in most states "mediocre to awful."

NBC again this year will host a forum with lawmakers, leaders in education policy, the media, students, parents and teachers to discuss real solutions for our education system. Since Education Nation's goal is a positive one -- we want to find what works, not place blame -- here are four states, each in a different region, with differing income levels and racial make-ups Fordham says have the highest science standards:

California, A. Fordham calls California's standards "comprehensive" yet succinct. The standards cover topics not normally covered in K to 12 education and each grade level's subject matter flows easily from and to the next year's content. Students at each grade level are also given experiments that help them learn the scientific method.

Indiana, A-. The Indiana standards, the report says, build "logically and effectively through advancing grade levels with refreshing precision." Student expectations are also called "reasonable" but "rigorous."

Massachusetts, A-. The report, in part, applauds Massachusetts for combining mathematical problem solving with research and experimentation.

South Carolina, A-. According to Fordham, South Carolina's standards are both clear and succinct. South Carolina is also praised for the continuity of its curriculum.

The path to success seems obvious: clearly written standards that are succinct yet comprehensive; a curriculum where one year's content is not isolated from another; and an emphasis on hands-on learning.

Polling shows Americans are increasingly pessimistic the next generation will be better off than the current one. Of course this profound shift is due in part to the fact that, three years after the official end to our last recession, too many Americans are still out of work and incomes are still declining. But I believe the foundation of this shift has to do with pessimism about the American education system. The Fordham Institute report quotes leading science educator Shirley Malcolm on the prevailing feeling about American science after the launch of Sputnik. Malcolm says, "All of a sudden everybody was talking about it, and science was above the fold in the newspaper, and my teachers went to institutes and really got us all engaged. It was just a time of incredible intensity and attention to science."

Americans were optimistic; they believed as a nation we could put a man on the moon. It sparked a conversation. The conversation among the nation's policymakers, industry leaders, teachers and parents trickled down to the students, who embraced science.

Sadly, that conversation has dissipated to the point that our top political candidates get very few questions about education and our federal lawmakers are left with few ideas other than to import the best and the brightest. If we're not excited or serious about this conversation, how can we expect our students to be?