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William Bennett: STEM fields are withering

America’s K-12 and postsecondary education systems are failing in their mission to prepare our nation’s children and young adults in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM fields. And it is a national disaster in the making.

During my tenure as U.S. secretary of education, I had significant concerns about the academic rigor and relevance being delivered to America’s students in these fields. Today, American students score 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries. And yet a recent study by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found “economic forecasts point to a need for producing, over the next decade, approximately 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields than expected under current assumptions.”

We are nowhere near meeting that goal.

Our middling performance today stunts our nation’s economic growth and drastically undermines the ability of the next generation to support itself and its country with well-paying, growth-producing and satisfying jobs. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has estimated conservatively that the United States could add about $1 trillion a year to GDP if we could just raise our 15-year-olds’ mathematics achievement to the level of Canada’s.

As we continue to think through and debate our GDP, budget deficits and national debt problems, we should be discussing how to improve our students’ academic achievement, and in STEM education no less than anything else. To help solve our nation’s fiscal crisis, we must once and for all take seriously the idea that we need to solve our nation’s education crisis.

As the educator William Arrowsmith put it, “If you want to restore a Druid priesthood, you cannot do it by offering prizes for Druid-of-the-year. If you want Druids you must grow forests.”

Our schools must become forests of and for science and math education. The good news is there are some very successful organizations and programs rolling up their sleeves and directly addressing our STEM deficiency problems – growing forests at both the instructional and student ground levels. Every leader in education, from governors to CEOs, from superintendents to the U.S. secretary of education, needs to get behind what works and support these efforts in our schools.

One organization I’ve been proud to be affiliated with as a senior adviser is Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit that has been providing high-quality, rigorous STEM education to middle schools and high schools since 1997. Today, PLTW serves more than 4,700 schools. PLTW’s core mission is to prepare students for the global economy while closing the gap between the skills that employers need and the jobs that PLTW students are prepared to fill. And, according to a recent study at the University of Virginia, the evidence is compelling that PLTW contributes to raising student achievement and motivation in science and engineering while showing strong positive impact on mathematics and science achievement.

As a nation, we simply must get this message to schools, businesses, corporations, state departments of education, governors and beyond. This is an urgent need for our nation. We cannot continue to graduate students ill-prepared for our nation’s economic necessities – or their own.

William Bennett is a former U.S. secretary of education and a senior adviser to Project Lead the Way. Readers can write to him at Project Lead the Way, 3939 Priority Way South Drive, Suite 200, Indianapolis, IN 46240; website:


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