In the first of a two-part series on STEM education, we look at the dim U.S. results on the latest PISA tests and ask: What's a country to do?

Rob Preston, VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

December 9, 2010

4 Min Read

The Spending Picture

Indeed, if U.S. schools and students are struggling to keep up with those in other countries, it's not for lack of spending. A 2006 OECD study found that the U.S. spends more per student--across the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels--than the 29 other developed countries it studied. Across all levels, the U.S. spent $13,447 per student in 2006, almost twice the OECD average of $7,840.

In primary education, the $9,709 the U.S. spent per student ranked it second behind Luxembourg ($13.676) and well above the OECD average of $6,437. In secondary education, the $10,821 the U.S. spent per student ranked it fourth behind Luxembourg ($18,144), Switzerland ($13,268), and Norway ($11,435), and above the OECD average of $8,006. And when looking at all tertiary (undergraduate and graduate) education, including R&D activities, the U.S. ranked first, spending $25,109 per student, more than twice the OECD average of $12,336.

Since 2006, however, the recession has strapped education budgets at the U.S. state and local levels. In part to offset state and local cuts, the federal government is pouring even more money into the U.S. education system. The 2011 federal budget President Obama proposed in February included huge funding increases for STEM education as well as plans to eventually double funding for key science agencies like the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Federal funding of K-12 STEM education is due to increase by nearly 40% compared with fiscal 2010, to $1 billion across all fed agencies, and total federal STEM education funding is pegged to total $3.7 billion. The budget would triple the number of NSF Graduate Research Fellowships to 3,000 by 2013. Obama's budget would also make $500 million available through the Department of Education's "Investing in Innovation" Fund, which would enable schools to make technology-related investments "to improve teaching and learning."

The budget increase is in addition to a $250 million initiative Obama unveiled in January to improve science and math education, using donations from high-tech businesses, universities, and foundations. That initiative seeks to prepare more than 10,000 new math and science teachers over five years and provide on-the-job STEM training for an additional 100,000 people. Among the private-sector and foundation donors is Intel and its Intel Foundation, which are committing $200 million in cash and in-kind support over 10 years for teacher training and other measures. (A separate philanthropic campaign launched by Obama in November 2009 effectively commits another $250 million to improving STEM education.)

The U.S. education system is an area the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has targeted. One of its initiatives focuses on better ways to measure teacher effectiveness and systems for helping teachers improve. As outlined in Bill Gates’ 2010 annual letter, it’s a 10- to 15-year initiative, encompassing 3 million teachers and 27 million underprivileged students. The goal: 800,000 more highly effective teachers and an additional 500,000 "well-qualified" underprivileged high school graduates each year.

Noteworthy is the fact that of the nine "innovations" Gates highlighted in his foundation's annual letter, the teacher improvement initiative was one of only two he labeled as high risk (the other was invention of a highly effective malaria vaccine). The monumental challenges, according to Gates: Will teachers, including their unions, schools, districts, and states, be willing to change, and will budget cuts at the state and local levels slow this work?

New Approaches Needed

A recent report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, argues that the prevailing approaches to improving this nation's STEM standing "are in fact quite limited" and that fresh ideas are needed.

The report's authors, ITIF President Rob Atkinson and education expert Dr. Merrilea Mayo, call for replacing this country's "Some STEM for All" approach--whereby all students, from kindergarten to graduate school, "get as much and as high a quality STEM education as possible"--with an "All STEM for Some” framework--whereby students who are most interested in and capable of excelling in STEM are singled out for the "kind of educational experience they need" in order to advance in those fields. The authors note that the targeted "All STEM for Some" approach would require much less money and other "societal resources" and deliver a higher ROI--in terms of preparing people for high-tech jobs and fueling innovation--than the legacy "Some STEM for All" approach.

Still, critics question whether tech employers, government officials, think tanks, and academics are exaggerating the urgency of boosting STEM education in the U.S. They note that the unemployment rates for U.S. engineers, programmers, and certain other technical occupations, especially those prone to offshore outsourcing, are close to record highs coming out of the recession. Meantime, India, China, Russia, and other countries are producing technical grads by the millions, pushing down salaries. Why should the U.S. invest so much in and care so much about STEM education, the critics ask, if the job market won't support it?

The second part of this two-part Innovation Mandate series on STEM education will address those criticisms and concerns and offer other alternative approaches. Stay tuned.

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

About the Author(s)

Rob Preston

VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech publishing and media, during which time he has been a senior-level editor at CommunicationsWeek, CommunicationsWeek International, InternetWeek, and Network Computing. Rob has a B.A. in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and an M.A. in economics from Binghamton University.

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