White House Advisers Call for Big Changes to Improve Science Education

The United States needs to do a much better job of teaching science and math in elementary and secondary school—and the federal government needs to spend a lot more money to address the problem.

That’s the frank assessment of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). In a report issued today, PCAST calls for close to $1 billion in new spending on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education at the precollege level. That would nearly double the $1 billion currently being spent by the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which makes up the lion’s share of the government’s $1.2 billion STEM budget for K–12 education.

The report offers a sweeping menu of reforms intended to help meet President Barack Obama’s oft-repeated goal of lifting U.S. students “from the middle to the top of the pack” in international tests of science and math achievement. It recommends spending $360 million a year to create 1000 new STEM-focused elementary, middle, and high schools, $325 million a year to boost the salaries of some 22,000 top-notch math and science teachers around the country, and up to $200 million a year to create a new agency that would fund research on new educational technologies and “deeply digital” classroom materials.

While acknowledging that elementary and secondary education “is largely a state and local responsibility” and that the federal government contributes only 8% of this $600 billion enterprise, the report emphasizes that Washington isn’t doing as much as it could to improve teacher quality, raise test scores, broaden participation, and build enthusiasm for science among students and the public. That’s true even for the current Administration, it notes.

“The Federal Government has historically lacked—and still lacks—sufficient leadership capacity dedicated to STEM education,” it declares, calling out NSF and the Department of Education for not working together better. In addition, the report says that it’s hard to know how well current programs to boost STEM education are working because they “have not been researched and evaluated in a manner that contributes to effective program development and policymaking.”

Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, says that the White House is reviewing the report and that it “appreciates the robust work that PCAST has done.” She says that the president’s push to raise student achievement in math and science “reflects the fact that he believes we haven’t done enough.”
Obama is expected to mention the PCAST report this afternoon in a White House event marking an expansion of the Administration’s push to encourage companies and philanthropic organizations to invest more in STEM education. He will laud 100 CEOs for forming a new nonprofit entity, called Change the Equation, which hopes to implement innovative STEM programs in 100 needy schools and communities. The President will also promote the expected synergy between federal programs and the $700 million that the private sector is already investing to improve STEM education.