Report Advocates Changing the Culture of Science and Math Education

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Publication date: 
14 May 2003

"Continued innovation and growth in our economy depend substantially on the quality and size of the professional technical labor force," say the authors of a new report from the Committee for Economic Development (CED). "The increasing complexity of daily life also requires a citizenry that is scientifically literate," they continue. "Improving the quality of math and science education in America is a critical first step toward both of those goals." Their report proposes ways of changing the culture of science and math education to encourage greater interest and motivation on the part of both students and teachers.

The Committee for Economic Development is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of over 200 business leaders and university presidents. The report, "Learning for the Future: Changing the Culture of Math and Science Education to Ensure a Competitive Workforce," is a policy statement by the CED's Research and Policy Committee. It frames the improvement of science and math education as an issue of importance to the nation's labor market, economic growth, and national security. Its recommendations are aimed at the private sector, educators, and state and local governments. In his keynote speech for the report's release, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) commented, "The business leaders at CED understand first hand how deteriorating math and science education and steep decreases in qualified science and math professionals can not only hurt business. It can undermine our nation's long-term economic performance, security, and global position."

The report acknowledges that many efforts are currently underway to enhance science and math education, and it cites a number of previous reports on this subject. "Our mission, in large part," the report states, "is to support these experiments, help to scale them up, and to encourage the business community to be a fully-fledged partner in these efforts." While many previous reports have focused on "supply side"issues such as resources, this report says, "CED also believes that improving the nation's math and science education will require change on the demand side as well, that is, the way our nation's young people regard these disciplines. Too often, they are dismissed as too hard, too inaccessible, too elitist, too boring, or too unfashionable." An important element of the report's recommendations is encouraging more women and traditionally underrepresented minorities to pursue S&T careers.

The report "strongly supports the nationwide movement towards standards and accountability" and urges that those states that have adopted such programs "be considered models." Because federally-mandated math and reading assessments are to begin this year, while assessments in science are not required until the 2007-8 school year, the report warns that "increased attention and resources focused on math and reading could come at the expense of science teaching and learning." It encourages states to "work proactively to ensure that science education is not neglected," and urges "the federal government to provide grants to states that seek to develop and/or revise science standards and assessments."

The report contains a number of useful statistics on K-12 student science and math achievement, age and qualifications of teachers, production of science and engineering degrees, and expected job growth in S&T fields. It lays out three main challenges to be addressed: Increasing Student Interest in Math and Science to Sustain the Pipeline; Demonstrating the Wonder of Discovery While Helping Students to Master Rigorous Content; and Acknowledging the Professionalism of Teachers. Specific recommendations are then provided for each challenge. Some of those recommendations are summarized below:

CHALLENGE ONE: Increasing Student Interest in Math and Science to Sustain the Pipeline:

School districts should ensure that their curricula engage students, promote active learning, and align with state and local standards. Schools should also replicate programs proven to effectively support high science and math achievement among underrepresented groups. Businesses should support, and encourage employee support of, extracurricular science and math activities, contribute to enhancements of the school district's curricula "that integrate state-of-the-art applications," and highlight job opportunities available to S&T professionals. Colleges and universities should consider the quality of teaching in their introductory science and engineering classes, ensure that grading in these fields is fair and aligned with other departments and courses, and increase their communication with K-12 education "to better prepare students for the rigors of higher education."

CHALLENGE TWO: Demonstrating the Wonder of Discovery While Helping Students to Master Rigorous Content:

Colleges that educate teachers must ensure that content knowledge is emphasized as well as pedagogical training. Businesses should work with colleges, universities and school districts to provide summer experiences or internships for teachers, encourage contacts between teachers (and students as appropriate) and professionals in S&T fields, and provide staff development to expand teacher knowledge. S&T-based businesses should be involved reviewing and revising science education standards. School districts "should be encouraged to seek innovative and promising solutions to improve math and science teaching and learning."

CHALLENGE THREE: Acknowledging the Professionalism of Teachers:

State governments should work with boards of education to implement high quality certification programs for S&T professionals, work together to develop systems of pension and license reciprocity, and work with school districts to increase teachers' starting salaries "to better reflect local labor market conditions."

The report does not propose incentives to spur the various stakeholders to implement its recommendations. While it highlights examples of successful programs and activities around the country, its recommendations do not include a mechanism to provide coordination, evaluate progress, and ensure dissemination of lessons learned and best practices.

The approximately 50-page report is available in pdf format on the CED web site at