State must invest now in science and math education
By WILLIAM BRINKLEY, ROBERT CURL and KURT SWOGGER | Houston Chronicle
Dec. 20, 2008
American demand for scientists and engineers is expected to grow four times faster than all other professions over the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet today, only 5 percent of U.S. college undergraduates earn degrees in science and engineering, whereas in China, 42 percent of students do. In Texas, we rank second in total population of the 50 states, but 29th in the number of scientists and engineers in our work force, and first in the number of high-tech jobs lost between 2000 and 2005.
If Texas is to lead the next frontier — an increasingly technologically advanced, global marketplace — then we must produce a work force prepared to compete, and that begins with world-class math and science education in our state's public schools.
Our first priority must be recruiting, retaining and rewarding teachers, who make the single biggest difference in academic achievement. Not only are highly qualified Texas science and math teachers in short supply today, but we're losing literally thousands each year. In 2007 alone, approximately 4,000 math and science teachers left Texas classrooms, costing our state an estimated $27 million to replace them.
Fortunately, there are programs already proven successful in preventing the loss of highly qualified math and science teachers, such as UTeach (http://uteach.utexas.edu), a teacher training and support program launched at The University of Texas at Austin in 1997. UTeach employs master teachers from around the state to provide real-life experience, guidance and inspiration for science and math majors on the road to becoming teachers both while they're in and once they're out of college.
UTeach is making a quantifiable difference: almost half of UTeach graduates teach in high-need schools, and 80 percent — compared with only 50 percent nationally — are still teaching after five years.
Successful teachers mean successful students, and fortunately, the University of Houston is among three Texas universities preparing to replicate this exceptional program. But Texas should implement proven programs like UTeach — recommended in a 2005 National Academies report for nationwide adoption — at the statewide level, to give our math and science teachers the training and support they need to succeed and stay with teaching.
Secondly, well-designed, effective curricula are necessary to pique and hold students' interest in science and math. Today, not quite one in four Texas high-school graduates is ready for college-level science. Curricula must be relevant and rigorous enough to adequately prepare and inspire students for college. Incentive programs, such as Advanced Placement (AP) Strategies (http://www.apstrategies.org), are also preparing high-school students to enter college and earn a degree by reinforcing strong student and teacher performance with monetary stipends.
The program's success has been dramatic: Here in Houston, participating high schools — with minority enrollment of 93 percent — have experienced a 97 percent increase in passing AP math, science and English scores since the program began two years ago, with passing scores by minority students almost doubling. Texas should expand funding to deliver AP Strategies to all school districts, and to provide the tools needed to help make math and science real for our children.
Third, accountability is key to improving Texas' public education. Our current accountability system is frustratingly complex, using 36 academic measures — many of which don't align with state education goals — to rank districts and schools. A poor use of time for beleaguered school administrators, the current system should be modified so it is not punitive but rather rewards student and school growth and improvement. Texas' accountability system should also recognize schools with students who advance to magnet schools, as well as students who earn commended status — the state's most accurate measure of college-readiness.
Additionally, making educational information systems more transparent will help create a higher level of accountability and, ultimately, better-performing schools.
Finally, implementing a few improvements and then regarding the problem as solved won't do. We need an entity at the state level charged with continuing the process of improving math and science education. A statewide science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) advisory council made up of classroom teachers, school officials, higher-education representatives and industry and governmental leaders from across Texas would continue the work by guiding the implementation of these recommendations, by proposing further improvements, and by advising policymakers and education agencies. Creating a statewide council would not only demonstrate Texas' real commitment to bettering math and science education, but also help coordinate such efforts and produce measurable results.
Texas' public education system has helped develop engineers, scientists and other technology professionals who today help lead highly successful companies here in Texas. In the Houston region, engineering-based corporations such as Dow Chemical understand their future depends upon Texas' next generation of innovators. They continue to be committed to improving science and math education in Texas, and consistently partner with the nonprofit and public sectors to support effective science and math programs. But for public-private collaborations to continue to make a difference, our public schools' math and science education must stay strong, too. The issue is bigger than just business — increasing engineering degrees alone by only 25 percent would add $6 billion to the Texas economy within 15 years.
Next month, Texas legislators will begin deliberating and determining our state's priorities for future funding and support. Our state's success in the next frontier — global competition — centers on world-class math and science education. We urge Texas lawmakers to take this opportunity to raise the bar high in these critical areas. We must invest now, or later pay the price of being left behind.
The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas — made up of Texas' Nobel Laureates and National Academies members — has proposed four practical, actionable recommendations for state leaders to adopt, putting Texas on the path to world-class math and science education for our children, and a prosperous future for our state. For more information, visit www.tamest.org/education.
Brinkley is senior vice president for graduate sciences/dean, Graduate School of Biomedical Science, Baylor College of Medicine; Curl is the Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Natural Sciences, university professor emeritus, Rice University; and Swogger is executive vice president, Planned Innovation Institute.