02/12/2012 05:09 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2012

If There's One Thing I've Learned, It Was Taught to Me

In an age when YouTube sensations garner more attention than the hardworking men and women who created the fiber optic network that connects us to the Internet, it's easy to take for granted the unsung heroes who have touched all our lives -- the teachers who laid the foundation in our formative years. Recent research has confirmed that, at each stage of a student's education, teachers can shape the trajectory of his or her life; yet our country's education system is receiving failing marks and facing a shortage of educators. Fortunately, today a number of model programs are making substantial strides to better prepare students, cultivate renewed interest in important subjects, and equip teachers with the expertise and tools to teach effectively.

On Tuesday President Obama hosted the second White House Science Fair to recognize achievements of students from across the country and promote a broad range of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) initiatives. The event featured over 100 students from 45 states representing the next generation of innovators, mathematicians, and scientific developers. There the administration announced plans to help prepare 100,000 science and math teachers, train one million additional STEM graduates, and secure $100 million in commitments over the next ten years.

The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) will play a central role in pursuing those objectives. Partnered with the Laying the Foundation (LTF) teacher training program, we are facilitating teacher training from middle school through college. We provide teachers at every level with math and science content knowledge support and pedagogical coaching. Across the country, NMSI programs have trained more than 44,000 teachers.

In addition to projects aimed at training existing teachers, over the next three years, NMSI will prepare about 5,000 new STEM teachers from 31 UTeach universities. The UTeach program attracts talented math and science majors, and prepares them to become outstanding high school and middle school teachers. In the past three years, enrollment in UTeach has tripled, and it continues to grow. We hope to expand the program to over 50 universities within the next five years.

The success of the UTeach program is evidence of a growing recognition of the important role teachers serve, and it comes at a crucial time. Last year, 48 percent of America's public schools did not meet federal achievement standards, leaving too many students unprepared for college or the workforce. The U.S. has fallen from first to fourth worldwide in the percentage of adults holding a college degree, at a time when analysts predict that sixty percent of the jobs in this country will require a higher degree by 2018.

Correcting these trends starts with acknowledging the importance of talented teachers at every level of a student's education. To keep America competitive, it's estimated the U.S. will need 200,000 more STEM teachers by 2015. Programs like UTeach and the president's "Educate to Innovate" campaign will produce the teachers we need to inspire and educate our nation's future.

The president was right when he said: "When students excel in math and science, they help America compete for the jobs and industries of the future." Emphasizing the importance of talented teachers, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, we can and will meet our country's education needs, and uphold America as a leader of innovation and progress.

Dr. Mary Ann Rankin is president and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.