Improving Competitiveness in the Education Race


December 2009

Improving Competitiveness in the Education Race

A Department of Education program aims to improve students' knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and math.


The jury is still out on whether President Obama's economic stimulus plan is the resounding success the Administration insists it is. Though the Web site showed over 640,000 jobs saved or created as of October 30, news citing inaccurate reporting of funding recipients was everywhere; and employment is set to hit a high not seen since the early '80s.

One program funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that may be on track for success, however, is the Department of Education's Race to the Top. This $5 billion fund will encourage states to improve the quality and supply of math and science teachers and help states pay for innovative learning approaches.

Race to the Top will support state plans to meet the following objectives: 1) adopting college- and career-ready standards and assessments; 2) recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals; 3) building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve their practices; and 4) turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools. To qualify for a grant, a state must have made significant progress in meeting these four objectives. The program is reportedly a blueprint for the Administration's plans for the upcoming No Child Left Behind reauthorization.

Expanding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is critical to preparing students for success in college and careers. Yet a recent National Academy of Engineering (NAE) study entitled Engineering in K?12 Education found, "In contrast to science, mathematics, and even technology education, all of which have established learning standards and a long history in the K?12 curriculum, the teaching of engineering in elementary and secondary schools is still very much a work in progress." The study said that no learning standards, little guidance for teacher professional development, and no national or state assessments of student accomplishment have been developed for engineering education.

Students will thrive in the competitive global economy if they are introduced to the critical-thinking skills and concepts central to STEM education. To become engaged, however, students must be taught in a way that allows them to use science and math to solve real-world problems. Many would argue that "using science and math to solve real-world problems" is the definition of engineering; yet K?12 students often have no idea what engineering is and develop an aversion to the unknown.

Teacher professional development is key to raising awareness about engineering; but teachers themselves may not know much about the field. NAE estimated that only 18,000 teachers have undergone professional development training to teach engineering-related coursework. On the rare occasion initiatives for K?12 engineering education have been developed, they "were developed independently, often have different goals, and vary in how they treat engineering concepts, engineering design, and relationships among engineering and the other STEM subjects."

Race to the Top has the potential to improve both student learning and teacher development in engineering education, although improvements in STEM education as a whole would also benefit students preparing for college and careers in a high-tech world. As the U.S. attempts to "race to the top," enticing more students to study STEM subjects will be crucial to expanding the pipeline, fueling innovation, and helping to maintain America's competitiveness.

The Department of Education is scheduled to hold three public meetings across the country between November and December to gather input from experts and practitioners that will inform the development of a Race to the Top assessment competition. The department plans to publish the Race to the Top application early next year and will award grants by next fall.