An Interview with Andrew Kelly on How Business Can Help Improve STEM Education

1) Andrew, you , Rick Hess, and Olivia Meeks recently released a report about business involvement in ensuring student success in STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering and Math ) What brought this about?

There has been no shortage of attention the challenge of improving science and math education in the United States. In fact, year in and year out, there is a new international assessment showing that American students lag behind their international peers, which prompts requisite calls to correct these deficiencies. However, while some gains have been made, we still have not seen the transformative change that is necessary.

Our report was borne from a sense that while recent proposals to reform STEM education are well-intentioned and reasonable, they often leave undisturbed the organizing assumptions of schools designed to process the masses and educate the few. Part of the problem is that existing efforts to reform STEM are often constrained by the need to build consensus among various stakeholders, leading to a nonthreatening agenda that can find broad-based support. In offering a complement to helpful but mild-mannered proposals, we have sought to provide a bolder, more ambitious, potentially more controversial vision of how the business community can most effectively leverage its expertise and resources when it comes to STEM reform.

2) Should businesses focus on the gifted students and highly able?

Our report points out the fact that we don't deal with just one STEM challenge, but two. On the one hand, our science and technology firms need a new generation of workers that are proficient in math and science concepts. These are the workers that make STEM businesses "go," and are the backbone of the American STEM workforce.

But our economic competitiveness also relies on cultivating the next generation of high-achieving innovators and entrepreneurs, those who will be responsible for the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the years to come.

There is evidence that we are not addressing either side of this challenge very effectively; less than 40 percent of our students at all levels score proficient on the math and science NAEP exams, and the percentages of students scoring at the "advanced" level is in the single digits. America lags far behind international competitors in the percentage of students that score at the advanced level in math.

So, we are falling short on both ends. But too often the response has been to push for universal STEM proficiency and hope for the best on both fronts.

But as business leaders know, different challenges require different solutions, and not all firms are well-suited to take on all challenges.

We argue that business leaders with an interest in STEM reform need to take a clear-eyed look at which piece of the STEM challenge they are best-suited to pursue. This is not to say that the business community should pay more attention to one piece or the other, only that success on either front requires a dogged focus on the reforms that are likely to pay dividends for particular types of students.

3. How should businesses think about getting involved in STEM reform?

There are some basic principles that business leaders would do well to keep in mind. First, wherever possible, business leaders should try to make bolder investments in new, innovative partners that are not intricately tied to the structures and routines that make up the status quo. Rather than the oft-appealing course of supporting the bandwagon carrying education's latest flavor-of-the-month fad with tens of millions in cash and in-kind support, business leaders should seek out redesign efforts or providers that have the potential to revolutionize schooling, teaching, and learning. Truth be told, foundations and government are already pumping billions into backing the popular reforms of the moment and there's little evidence that this funding, along with related business support, has done much good.

Second, business leaders should approach education reform investments with the same scruples that they do their business investments. Not all innovative ventures in education are created equal, and business leaders should be clear-eyed in assessing the long-term prospects of a given reform idea before investing. New STEM investments should be based upon metrics, research, and outcomes, utilizing the same sort of due diligence that is done before any CEO implements a new business strategy.

Third, business leaders should be brave enough to provide operational advice and guidance to their educational partners in areas where they have expertise. They should provide political cover for reformers in the inevitable policy battles that result from attempts to change the status quo. Rather than seek "consensual" middle ground that can find support among the array of STEM stakeholders, business leaders should leave that turf to the membership and advocacy organizations that are too constrained to do much else. Business leaders should unapologetically operate as independent stakeholders unafraid to push for bolder, more ambitious reform.

4. Are there any organizations that are truly being BOLD in this regard? Or is Bill Gates the only standout in this realm?

There are certainly some examples of businesses that are doing interesting and innovative things in the STEM reform conversation. The pharmaceutical company Merck has developed a Merck Institute for Science Education, which has helped to inform science curriculum in New Jersey schools and has provided professional development to teachers across the state. IBM's "Transition to Teaching" program puts employees on the fast-track to become licensed teachers once they have decided to leave the company, stocking the pipeline with talented mid-career professionals.

Like so many initiatives, however, these highlights are often few and far between, and they do not spawn replication by other businesses across the country. Our report seeks to provide some basic principles that business leaders can think about as they try to get involved in STEM reform.

5. How should businesses help in the quest to recruit, train, and retain high-quality STEM teachers?

We start from the premise that efforts to recruit more talented STEM graduates to the teaching force and retain them for a few years are face a severe economic disadvantage.

Would-be reformers must confront the fact that the teacher quality deficit in STEM is far more challenging than that in other disciplines as a result of simple economics. In general, college graduates who major in math or one of the hard sciences in college can command a significantly higher starting wage in the private sector than most any public school can hope to offer a first-year teacher.

According to the 2010-2011 College Salary Report from PayScale, an online compensation database, a newly minted electrical, chemical, or industrial engineer can expect a starting salary of about $58-65,000. The same data show that the median starting salary for those with a degree in physics, computer science, or applied math comes in somewhere between about $51,000 and $56,000.

Compare these figures to the $34,500 median salary for a teacher in the first years of their career (as calculated across selected states by the National Center for Education Statistics) and you get a sense of the challenge. Not surprisingly, the PayScale data suggest that these gaps only become more expansive as graduates progress in their careers, making mid-career shifts an even more daunting prospect for a math or science major.

Unfortunately, even the most aggressive merit pay systems, innovative alternative licensure programs, and far-reaching recruitment efforts will have a difficult time closing these significant financial gaps. Rather than only thinking about how we can entice more of these STEM graduates to "do the right thing" and join the teaching corps, business leaders should press policymakers and educators to consider efforts to meet those experts where they are. How can schools leverage existing experts who have an interest in education but not necessarily as a career? How should we structure incentives and rewards to make our best math and science teachers more productive? And how should we think about teacher training that is rigorous and timely without discouraging talented people from entering the field? This kind of reform requires a serious rethinking of the teacher job description.

Business leaders should look for organizations and schools that have figured out how to leverage the experts in their community who have an interest in teaching but not necessarily as a career. For example, Boston-based Citizen Schools provides highly regarded after-school instruction and career-based learning by arranging for local volunteers to work with students on a regular basis. Rather than simply mentoring or tutoring students, participants teach weekly modules that tackle complex projects with interested students. Citizen Schools leverages the expertise of local engineers and scientists on a part-time (and cost-free) basis and points to the promise of approaches that do not wholly depend on full-time, career-long staffing.

The business community should also look for efforts to rethink teacher training and professional development. We suggest that science and technology firms develop their own teacher professional development programs in order to impart their expertise and improve the math and science teaching in their communities.

6. There are three T's- that need to be explored- tools, talent, and technologies- Why are each of these important?

Each of these are important, and technology can allow us to leverage our existing talent more effectively. The most significant impact of educational technology is its potential to eliminate the barriers posed by geography. Online instruction and virtual schooling present opportunities to leverage our best math and science teachers more effectively than ever before. Technology can allow us to get beyond the days of a rural school not being able to offer AP Physics because there is no physics teacher in the building, or when gifted students in urban schools could not get access to challenging courses because there was little demand at their school for such curricula.

In addition, technology presents opportunities to customize math and science learning and provide an array of enrichment opportunities for all students. New York City's School of One is an intriguing example of how this kind of thinking can play out. The School of One allows teachers to customize what a student learns each day based on what she has already mastered and needs to learn, to do so with an eye towards the ways in which that student learns best, and to do so in a way that maximizes the efficient use of school resources. The School of One manages this feat (currently, just for middle school math) by collecting data on which learning objectives students have mastered and how they like to learn, and then assigning them each day to appropriate lessons. The emergence of high-quality online tutoring firms can also help schools to provide enrichment opportunities to their students inside or outside of classroom hours.

In short, business leaders interested in transformative STEM reform should think about the potential for technology to free schools from 19th century routines and structures, to get the most out of our best math and science teachers, and to provide instruction that is better-tailored to individual student needs.

Andrew Kelly is a research fellow at AEI.

Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT)

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