Filling the Science Pipeline

Developing Future Innovators Is a Surprisingly Complex Process

Posted April 7, 2011 at 5:29pm

When Barack Obama appeared on NBC’s “Tonight Show” in March 2009, just two months after becoming president, he steered clear of comedic banter long enough to urge the country’s best and brightest students to reconsider their career choices. “A smart kid coming out of school, instead of wanting to be an investment banker, we need them to decide they want to be an engineer, they want to be a scientist, they want to be a doctor or a teacher,” Obama declared.

In the two years since, his administration has pledged to help school districts hire 100,000 highly qualified math and science teachers during the next decade to motivate future innovators. And the president himself has continued to travel the country urging elementary and high school students to consider scientific professions.

At first glance, both the problem and the solution seem clear. The problem: American students are lagging behind other countries’ students in math and science achievement, setting the country up for a shortage of qualified scientists and engineers at a time when innovation is increasingly the key to every nation’s economic success. The solution: Improve math and science education to produce a larger cohort of budding innovators.

But both the problem and the solution are more complex than that.

Research shows the country is producing more scientists and engineers than available jobs. At the same time, many of the highest-achieving students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — what’s known in the education world by the acronym STEM — are deciding to take jobs in other fields, just as Obama worried on Jay Leno’s show. The country’s mediocre performance in international education rankings is a result of a two-tiered education system that produces not only more high-performing students than any other country studied, but also more poor-performing students than anyplace else.

America still has a robust STEM workforce that is an important competitive advantage to the country. To maintain that advantage, some education analysts say the public schools need to figure out how to inspire the highest-achieving students to pursue degrees and jobs in the STEM fields, while others argue the best approach is to boost the achievement of all students so that the American workforce overall is more scientifically literate. Other advocates argue that the government needs to stimulate demand for highly skilled workers — by increasing research and development funds — as much as it needs to worry about increasing the supply of scientists and engineers.

“We’re producing a lot of really high-performing students, but we’re also producing a lot of low-performing students,” said Janie Scull, an analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank in Washington. “Given the option of focusing on high achievers or focusing on everyone and raising all boats, it’s not a choice. We need to do both.”

Highs and Lows

Every three years America’s pride takes a hit when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development releases the results of tests comparing the performance of school-age students around the world in various subjects. In the most recent round, released in December, the average score of American students on mathematics tests fell below the international average — and the scores of 30 other countries and territories. In science, American students ranked 23rd, right at the international average. “Being average in science is a mantle of mediocrity,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said bluntly.

The Fordham Institute pulled apart the math results and found they masked a more nuanced reality. Its researchers concluded that the United States produces the largest number of high-achieving math students as well as the largest number of low-achieving students, compared with other developed countries.

The trick for policy makers is to figure out how to boost both groups’ preparation for work in the STEM fields. For high achievers, one problem that Fordham researchers have uncovered is stagnation in the performance of the best and brightest students. On many tests, they don’t seem to be getting better. Teachers told Fordham in a survey that they were spending much more time with struggling students than with high achievers because of pressure to raise test scores. Fordham also attributes some of the stagnation to a trend in high schools away from specialized programs for gifted and talented students. Putting students of all levels in the same classes has been hailed by egalitarians as a way to eliminate low expectations for disadvantaged children, but some observers say fast learners need accelerated programs.

Scull said new teaching methods that create individualized programs for students could allow schools to keep high achievers interested while also improving the basic skills of children who are behind. “Kids learn better when they’re challenged,” she said.

For its part, the federal government sends money to schools to help the poorest children. Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, laments that, while money from Washington is available for improving science education, most of the funds have been spent on other priorities, such as reducing class size. The 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which sets the rules for distributing federal elementary and secondary education aid, exacerbated that trend by making schools accountable for improving poor students’ reading and math achievement, but not science. “Science was really short-shrifted,” Eberle said.

As Congress considers rewriting that law this year for the first time in nine years, Eberle and other science advocates are pushing to make their subject a greater priority — possibly by mandating annual tests and accountability for science achievement. “If we miss this opportunity, we’re really putting ourselves backward,” he said.

Stopping the Leakage

While lawmakers consider how to improve STEM education for children and teenagers as part of the No Child Left Behind debate, they can take solace in the remarks of many college leaders who say high schools are sending them solid crops of freshmen. Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said math professors tell her that the high achievers who make it to MIT are the best-prepared students that the university has ever admitted. “The students who come to MIT are getting better and better and better,” Hockfield said at a Brookings Institution event last fall. She said the university is getting so many great applicants that it plans to expand its undergraduate rolls.

Researchers Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Hal Salzman of Rutgers University did two studies in recent years that found colleges graduate more STEM specialists every year than there are available jobs in those fields, and that the percentage of students expressing an interest in those subjects who go on to get degrees has not changed over the past three years.

That good news was tempered by the researchers’ finding that the students with the highest SAT scores and the best grade point averages — the best and brightest — were increasingly dropping out of math, tech, science and engineering fields either by choosing to pursue other degrees or by entering other professions after graduation.

Lowell worries that efforts to boost the number of graduates with STEM majors could have perverse consequences. “Increasing the supply of workers will further depress the already lagging wage growth in STEM jobs — the latter is a fact for two decades running — hardly the thing for enticing bright students into those careers or inducing them to innovate,” Lowell said.

He contends that the government also must foster demand for scientists and engineers. “Stimulating the demand side takes money and creativity, from funding R&D, targeting corporate tax relief, to creating conditions where entrepreneurs can thrive,” he said.

One challenge is that no one really knows much the government already spends on the programs that burnish the supply of STEM workers or the ones that generate demand. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is leading an interagency effort to create an inventory of STEM education programs so that the government can coordinate them and make sure they are effective. “What we have is a fragmented system,” Eberle said.

Another challenge is the budgetary squeeze that all federal programs face this year. The first version of the midyear spending bill passed by the House, in February, would have lopped off some of the funding for STEM education in both the National Science Foundation and Education Department budgets. In recognition of Washington’s new austerity, a blue ribbon panel advising the president on scientific matters recommended that rather than create its own programs, the federal government should adopt an approach to develop STEM scholars that would bolster efforts by local schools, states, private companies and foundations to do the same.

“Achieving the nation’s goals for STEM education in K-12 will require partnerships with state and local government and with the private and philanthropic sectors,” the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said in a September report. “The federal government must actively engage with each of these partners, who must in turn fulfill their own distinctive roles and responsi­bilities.”