Obama directs $250 million for science and math education

New funding will increase the number of science, technology, engineering, and math teachers. The goal is to improve US students' mediocre ranking in math and science performance.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington Wednesday as he honors teachers who received awards for excellence in mathematics and science teaching and mentoring during an Educate to Innovate event.

President Obama on Wednesday announced a $250 million public-private effort to increase the number and quality of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers.

The partnerships expand the “Educate to Innovate” campaign Mr. Obama launched in November. But where the initial campaign focused on out-of-classroom science exposure – bringing in organizations like the Discovery Channel and Sesame Street – the latest efforts focus specifically the teaching part of the issue.

“The in-school intervention that has the highest impact on student achievement is a strong teacher,” says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, whose teaching fellowship is one of the five programs the administration is helping to expand.

The push for more attention on STEM subjects has been building for some time, with educators, business leaders, scientists, and policymakers calling attention to American students’ lackluster math and science performance relative to other countries and sounding the alarm for what it means for the country’s future.

“Our future is on the line,” said Obama in announcing the new partnerships and honoring more than 100 science and math teachers. “The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”

US students' mediocre ranking

According to one measure, US students are 19th in math and 14th in science out of 31 countries ranked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And in 2000, the number of foreign students studying physical sciences and engineering in US grad schools for the first time surpassed the number of American students.

Women and minority students are vastly underrepresented among undergraduate majors in science and math, and there is a growing shortage of qualified teachers for STEM subjects.

That shortage is what the programs highlighted Wednesday aims to address, trying to increase both the number and quality of STEM teachers, particularly in high-poverty schools.

Among the partnerships:

• An expansion of the UTeach program, which helps science and math undergraduates receive a teaching certificate along with their baccalaureate degree.

• A commitment by the presidents of more than 75 public universities to prepare 10,000 science and math teachers by 2015.

• An expansion of the Woodrow Wilson teaching fellowships, which will train more than 700 math and science teachers in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan over the next three years.

The focus on teaching is the right one, says Tracy Gray, managing director for the Center on STEM Education and Innovation at the American Institutes for Research, though the key is in how the programs are implemented.

“It’s necessary to have not just some good ideas and good intentions, but a very solid program that is based on evidence of what works, and that is provided to teachers on an ongoing basis,” says Dr. Gray. “A one-shot professional development initiative in August does not help the teacher in February…. The hope is that this [administration] effort, working with the business community, will generate enough funding so that teachers get enough support … to really ensure they have both the content and the pedagogical knowledge to reach all students.”

Programs selected have good track records

Most of the programs being highlighted already have a significant track record, providing extensive support and both practical and theoretical training to the teachers they produce.

“The prevailing myth is that students majoring in math, chemistry, biology, or physics aren’t interested in teaching, and we’ve significantly debunked that myth,” notes John Winn, chief program officer for the National Math and Science Initiative, whose UTeach program had 2,700 students enroll this year at the 13 universities where it currently exists. (It is expanding this year to about 20 schools.) More than 90 percent of UTeach graduates become teachers, and 82 percent are still in the classroom after five years.

The Woodrow Wilson partnership, meanwhile, operates much like a teaching residency program, paying students during their fellowship and asking for a three-year commitment to teach in high-need schools, with on-site mentoring throughout that period.

Just a few teachers, notes Dr. Levine, can make a big difference: In Michigan, the 120 teachers a year that the program will train will be enough to fill all anticipated vacancies in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo, and the 80 teachers a year it has trained in Indiana is enough to increase the number of certified STEM teachers in the state by 20 percent.

“What we’ve asked [universities] to do is to create brand new programs that focus on student achievement as the goal and the marker of success, are clinically based, and move the instruction from the ivory tower into schools,” says Levine. “Even after this program is completed what we’ll have is a series of leading universities that have changed the way they prepare STEM teachers.”


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