Capitol Comment: Panel Report Shows Need for Education Improvement

By U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison | Dec 31, 2008

In a highly competitive global economy, the skills of the next generation of Americans will be the prime engine for our country's economic growth.

Yet compared with children in other nations, U.S. students are underperforming in the vitally important fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

In 2005, the National Academies released an eye-opening report called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which identified alarming trends in America's STEM education. Their conclusion was clear: if we want to remain the undisputed leader of the global economy, we need to improve our STEM abilities, and we need to do it urgently.

In response to "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," I charged The Academy of Medicine, Engineering, and Science of Texas (TAMEST) with forming a panel to study ways to improve STEM education in Texas. TAMEST is the perfect organization to help lead this mission.

In 2004, I co-founded TAMEST with Nobel laureates Dr. Michael Brown and the late Dr. Richard Smalley to bring together the state's top scientific minds to further position Texas as a national research leader.

On Dec. 9, the TAMEST Education Steering Committee released its much-anticipated report, "The Next Frontier: World-Class Science and Math Education in Texas," which includes recommendations that should be read by Texas parents, teachers, principals, and especially policy makers. A link to the report may be found at

In the words of Education Steering Committee Co-chair Dr. William Brinkley, who is also the Senior Vice President for Graduate Sciences and the Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Science at Baylor College of Medicine-Houston, "the United States is being left behind�In China today, over 40 percent of college undergraduates earn engineering and science degrees, while in the U.S., only 5 percent of students do, and Texas is in the bottom half among the states - our students consistently score lower than the national average on math and science proficiency tests. This is simply unacceptable."

Even now, American companies have to recruit heavily from overseas to fill job positions in highly technical fields such as computer engineering and medical science. And whenever possible, U.S. companies simply move overseas to find the necessary workers.

This "outsourcing" is one of the key reasons China has displaced the U.S. as the world's largest exporter of IT products (while the U.S. has become a net importer of those products).

According to "The Next Frontier," two of the best ways to improve STEM education are to expand Advanced Placement (A.P.) programs and strengthen the quality of teachers in STEM fields.

I supported authorization of the first federal grants for A.P. programs, and since 1998, their funding has grown from $3 million to $43.5 million per year. In 2007, I cosponsored and helped pass the America Competes Act, which increases the number of A.P. courses in underprivileged schools and bolsters the supply of teachers for A.P. math, science, and foreign language courses.

"Great teachers are the foundation upon which we will build world-class science and math education here in Texas," observed Committee member Kurt Swogger, Executive Vice President of Investments at the Planned Innovation Institute.

As other organizations have pointed out, the most consistent and powerful predictor of student achievement in STEM is the presence of teachers who are fully certified and have at least a bachelor's degree in the subjects they teach.

That's why I've been a strong advocate for Teachers for a Competitive Tomorrow, a project in which colleges and universities encourage undergraduate students to gain degrees in their STEM fields of study with teacher certification obtained through required electives. This grant program is modeled after the UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin.

The "Next Frontier" report cited the innovative UTeach program as a model for improving STEM education. Nationwide, only 50 percent of new teachers are still teaching after three years, while 80 percent of UTeach graduates are still teaching after five years. UTeach is now being replicated as a national standard for science and math teacher preparation by the National Math and Science Initiative.

Through TAMEST, our state's brightest science and math academics have created a bold plan to address one of the greatest challenges facing our country. Now it is our responsibility � as citizens and legislators - to act on their proposals and renew our commitment to a better and more prosperous future.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas.

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