Perspective: An Open Letter to President Obama

Together we can change STEM education.

This is no secret: as a matter of national security, the nation’s math and science educational system urgently needs repair. Dozens of reports from policy experts, industry, researchers, and educators argue that fundamental improvements need to be made immediately. If we continue in our current trajectory, the education of our workforce will be so inferior that business will despair of hiring Americans. Science and technology research will increase its migration abroad. Most troubling, American citizens will be increasingly unable to make informed decisions that require science and quantitative analysis, as already evidenced by our fateful paralysis over global warming, stem cell research, teaching of evolution, and nuclear energy.

Naturally, there is no magic bullet, no single strategy that will fix a system as vast and decentralized as our educational system. There are interlocking problems at every level from families that fail to encourage their children’s academic ambitions to communities that cannot afford quality education to districts and states that treat education as a slush fund to the federal government that is failing to act.

As you assume office, you have an opportunity for a comprehensive, two-pronged response. For the huge educational system that is largely out of your control, you can inspire families, schools, and states to do their part. For the federal agencies you direct, reallocate funding and set priorities to provide the materials and assistance that can only come from the central government.

Bob Tinker, Chad Dorsey and Penny Noyce
President Emeritus Robert Tinker, President Chad Dorsey, Board Chair Pendred Noyce (left to right)

The nation is ready to listen to you enunciate the change that is needed. Your personal story is inspirational. Families need to be reminded that your rise was based on merit and hard work. The sacrifices you made to get an education were essential parts of your advancement. Your message could be that the federal government is not able to fix education alone, but it can meet the country halfway, and that together we can.

The agencies responsible for math and science education, primarily the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, have not responded with an appropriate sense of urgency. The size of the system baffles most policymakers. One’s first instinct is to fix the problem with direct action: use federal resources to hire better science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers; equalize inequitable funding; and provide massive in-service programs. But the federal government does not have sufficient resources to supplement all STEM teacher salaries so the best are not lured into business by more competitive salaries. It cannot afford to send all current teachers to universities for advanced study. It cannot afford to equalize educational funding between rich and poor districts.

The responsible agencies talk about the problem, but continue relatively unchanged, even withdrawing from the field by increasing their emphasis on academic research. Most of the current federal efforts in STEM education are perfectly defensible and contribute to valuable improvements. The Concord Consortium’s work, summarized in this newsletter, has been federally funded and I’m proud that it provides important parts of the foundation needed for radical national change. Because of federal funding to the Concord Consortium and others like us, we now have the tools, experience, manpower, and knowledge to fix STEM education. What is lacking is a coherent, forceful national policy that is equal to the challenge.

The importance of federal money is that it is concentrated, so that it can be used to finance major undertakings of importance to the nation, like building aircraft carriers and researching the causes of cancer. In this light, it is silly to return the concentrated federal dollars to the states and towns for them to spend on projects that lack national expertise and impact, and result in endless low-quality duplications.

A coordinated, sustained effort to improve STEM education nationwide would require just a fraction of the total federal expenditures for education. By devoting $750 million per year for four years on STEM education reform, the nation could be equipped with the materials and teacher skills to address the challenges we face. This amount could be found within the existing $70 billion annual budget at the Department of Education and the $1 billion spent by the National Science Foundation for science education.

That level of funding would allow for the following:

  • Outstanding curriculum materials for every student. A total revamping of the K-12 STEM curriculum would be based on research and make full use of modern technology for interactive learning, distribution, and assessment. The materials would be available online for all learners at no cost. They would provide embedded assessment so that teachers and parents could know in detail what students learn. Cost: $490 million.
  • Resources for all STEM teachers. A large collection of short courses specific to grade level and content would be developed for online or face-to-face delivery. These courses would cover the content of the new materials, the pedagogy, and the technology. Cost: $100 million.
  • Significant professional development for every teacher. A coordinated program would train every K-12 teacher through trainers, universities, and direct programs. Cost: $2.36 billion.
  • Higher education alignment. Universities would be engaged to offer the new content through in-service and pre-service programs and to incorporate them into their credentialing programs. Cost: $50 million.

To avoid the appearance of a national curriculum, three complete sets of curriculum materials would be created. The competition generated by funding three development efforts would ensure the highest quality and speedy completion. The new curriculum would be tied to national standards, so students could move freely among schools during the school year even if the schools used different versions.

This approach would free schools completely from the tyranny of textbooks and the regressive textbook adoption process. The funds saved could go a long way to pay for the costs of the required technology. Ideally, every student would be provided with a laptop. The current cost of putting a networked computer on a student’s desk is below $300 per year, including wireless connectivity and servers. This is about twice the cost of textbooks, but less than 3% of the average expenditures per student. The presence of the new online materials would provide a strong incentive for schools to fund the computers.

Putting materials on computers has many advantages. Most importantly, computers enable highly interactive activities that improve learning. Instead of reading static content, students can learn from interactive media through exploration, observation, and experimentation with computer models, visualizations, and data. While based on computers, the curricula should involve hands-on experience. The computer can help there, too, using probes and sensors that turn computers into sophisticated laboratory instruments. These can be intelligent and inexpensive, as “Monday’s Lesson” (pages 8-9) demonstrates.

Another advantage of computer-based materials is student assessment. Explicit questions can be embedded in the lessons and intelligent software can infer student skills by monitoring their actions as described in “Can They Do It or Do They Just Know How to Do It?” (pages 12-13). Data about student learning can be quickly fed back to teachers, giving them increased insights on where students are encountering difficulties and even suggesting alternative instructional strategies.

Professional development is the largest expense in this program, but even at the budgeted cost, schools and individuals will have to contribute to the total costs and unions will have to buy in. My budget provides for relatively low expenditures for professional development because of the design of the technology. Often when technology is implemented, extensive professional development is required because no curriculum is provided and teachers have to make it up as they go along. The proposed materials would be far more easily implemented and would, therefore, require less time and expense. The materials could be easily edited. In fact, an important strategy of professional development will be learning about the materials by customizing them, testing them in class, and contributing the improved materials to a national shared library where they would be reviewed and made public. The article “Community-Authored Resources for Education” (pages 6-7) describes how this can happen.

The radically decentralized educational system is a basic tenet of political liberty and freedom, but a disaster for math and science. We cannot afford to have over 10,000 school districts deciding what is important in math and science and then developing their own approaches and curriculum. The laws of science and the generalizations of mathematics are objective and not open for discussion.

The plan sketched above would provide a sensible compromise between a single national STEM curriculum and thousands of local ones. It would save schools the costs of textbooks, encourage them to exploit the power of modern technology, reach every teacher with professional development aligned to the new content, and give schools choices between three world-class STEM curricula.

President Obama, with you providing leadership and inspiration and the government providing all the assistance it can, perhaps American STEM education can be fixed during your presidency.

The Concord Consortium, under our new president Chad Dorsey, will continue to work toward these goals.