Improvement in STEM Education Will Need Comprehensive Reform

David Inserra, writing on the The Foundry Blog of the Heritage Institute, points out that the degenerating quality of science and technology education in American schools will soon become not just an economic threat, but also a national security issue. Those who claim that the solution to America’s STEM woes lies in more funding are missing the point, says Inserra — the true answer is to redesign the academic approach to STEM instruction top to bottom, including introducing incentives that will induce potential STEM educators to leave the private sector and enter the classroom.

One of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of recruiting science, technology, engineering and math teachers is the time-consuming licensing requirement that contributes dubious value to a potential instructor’s subject knowledge. It isn’t a surprise that faced with a choice to either enter the job market upon graduating from college or graduate school, or take on an additional expense of a teaching degree or a certificate program, the vast majority of right-thinking STEM graduates will choose the former.

An additional hurdle for STEM educators is the power of the seniority system that is used in most U.S. schools. Archaic “last in, first out” policies give preference to senior teachers regardless of their performance. Compensation is also based on seniority, not the quality of instruction or impact on student performance.

Our education system needs changes if it is going to compete in the 21st century. Policymakers should remove barriers to entering the teaching profession and encourage alternative certification programs, such as the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence. In addition, moving to a merit-based compensation system would reward and attract good teachers.

The district income gap that puts the best STEM teachers in schools that are funded by the highest property-tax pools — and can therefore afford to invest in the best facilities — can also be overcome by a wider adoption of online learning. A teacher in a traditional classroom can, at best, teach no more than 30 students at a time, while the reach of one in a virtual classroom is practically unlimited. Even students who attend schools with less course selection during normal hours can augment that selection from a limitless number of subjects covered by online courses frequently available for free.

Furthermore, there is no need to lock children into government-assigned public schools. School choice—whether through vouchers, tuition tax credits, education savings accounts, online learning, or homeschooling—enables parents to choose schools that best meet their children’s unique needs. State policymakers should empower parents with control over their share of education dollars, allowing them to take that money to any school of their choice. Together with private-sector scholarships (something tangible the AAM can do), school choice would give more students more opportunities to get a better STEM education.

The theory that throwing more money at education problems is the key to solving them has been thoroughly discredited in the last several decades. However, its very simplicity remains appealing to those who reject the idea that a complicated issue – like education – requires complicated solutions. As Inserra argues, comprehensive change to our STEM education approach is necessary to see real improvement.