Although he said in his State of the Union speech that our “free enterprise system is what drives innovation,” in the mysteriously one-track mind of Barack Obama, government spending is his real answer to every problem.
Despite the desperate need for strength in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), a tiny 1 percent of the $50 billion in Federal education “discretionary spending” was proposed for STEM in Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget.
Our nation’s global share of activity in STEM-focused industries is in decline, jeopardizing our status as a world leader in innovation. According to the Programme For International Student Assessment, our 15 year-old students now trail their counterparts in Shanghai by 56 points, with even larger gaps in science (73 points) and mathematics (113 points)—the subjects which form the basis of our nation’s innovative capacity. Howard Rich, chairman of Americans for Limited Government, pointed this out in a Feb. 3 column.
The fiscal 2011 budget for federal education was called “one of the largest increases” ever. The $50 billion in discretionary spending was on top of $100 billion in the 2009 “stimulus package” for education—mainly teacher jobs (read: teacher union valentines). But is spending the key to innovation? Since 1985, federal spending on K-12 education has spurted ahead by 138 percent, but academic achievement and graduation rates have remained pancake-flat.
This stand-still condition, which Obama hopes to change with more funding, will only widen the innovation gap between the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world. According to the non-partisan Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), America ranked sixth among the world’s top 40 industrialized countries in “innovative competitiveness” but last in its “rate of change in innovative capacity.”
In its instructive 2010 report, the ITIF lays out in detail how to give more American students stronger STEM skills and get them into STEM jobs. In spite of the proliferation of reports raising the same alarm and continuing to call for the same solutions, “what are needed are fresh approaches,” the organization said.
Virtually every call to action recommends a “some STEM for all” approach. For example, Obama has called for recruiting 10,000 teachers to teach all students in the areas of STEM. Mary Frances Taymans, board member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has called for “a strong science education for all students,” according to the Washington Times. Obama has asked for $2.3 million for women and girls to close the gender gap in STEM students. It matters not whether they have the interest or capacity.
The “prevailing view is that the way to ensure that more Americans have needed STEM skills is to make sure” that every step of the way from kindergarten through graduate school all students get as much STEM education as possible, including teacher training and new curriculum, with the fragile “hope that this will increase the likelihood that at least some of them will go into STEM jobs.”
But it’s not that simple, the Foundation’s discerning study says. Policies emerging from this ‘some STEM for all’ approach “are actually not very effective.” Very few workers need extensive STEM skills. “In fact, STEM jobs constitute at most 5 percent of all jobs.
A more targeted ‘all STEM for some’ approach makes more sense. “We advocate more reliance on lower cost tools such as better information…on how to drive improvement, and more partnerships with industry to promote STEM.
Money won’t solve the problem, the study says. Urging government to support more research on improving STEM pedagogy and educational materials is not the answer. More money is “popular because it avoids the politically difficult problems of challenging existing interests, including teachers’ unions and colleges.”
There’s a “plethora of information” generated in the past decade on how to help students learn STEP. Neither ‘more money’ nor ‘more information’ is the solution. Educational institutions at the K-12 level or the undergraduate and graduate level have little incentive to produce graduates “with the kinds of skills needed by industry.” It’s a “failure of will.”
Forcing all students to take more math and science courses “won’t result in more students who want to learn STEM and become STEM workers.” Needed is “an environment where” students can follow their passions, including “specialty STEM high schools, online learning, video game learning…increased ability to take college STEM courses while in high school…and access to real organizations where technology is being developed.”
The purpose in STEM education is to “power a science- and technology-driven U.S. economy, a growing innovative economy.
As a nation, we can’t afford to buy every child the best STEM education money can buy… Even if we did it’s unlikely” to address the need.
“The reality is that career choices are influenced by an array of factors including personality and intelligence. New research suggests choice of career involves a genetic component. One study found careers in physical science and engineering was “70 percent more influenced by a person’s genetic makeup” than other career choices. Ignoring these differences among students and “assuming that every student exposed to a high quality STEM education will want to and be able to become a scientist or engineer is simply wrong.”
Based, instead on the “all STEM for some” approach, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation offers these solutions: “new kinds of educational institutions, more incentives to reward institutions for producing more high-quality STEM graduates, more information to students, parents, and employers to drive better performance by educational institutions, capitalizing on student interest and spurring more industry involvement.”
ITIF further recommends shifting accountability measures for high schools to a skills-based paradigm. “Skills-based assessments should replace the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) subject matter based tests. It also proposes a national STEM talent recruiting system, similar to NCAA basketball recruiting.
It recommends requiring all colleges and universities receiving federal money to report results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (which measures effective educational practice.)
China recognizes that STEM is so important because the societal contribution exceeds that of other areas. Such a view is rejected in elite policy circles in Washington, which is populated by too many individuals with law degrees, particularly one with a Harvard law degree.