Today, the White House launched its new science, technology, engineering and math initiative, "Educate to Innovate." Backed by $260 million in cash and in-kind support from companies including Intel and organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the initiative is supposed to complement the "Race to the Top" federal education spending. It has three main goals:
1. Increasing STEM literacy so all students can think critically in science, math, engineering and technology
2. Improving the quality of math and science teaching so American students are no longer outperformed by those in other nations
3. Expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.
The President and other partners in the Educate to Innovate campaign intend to use a variety of approaches to attack these issues. Time Warner will be sponsoring STEM after-school activities. Discovery Communications will work on science-related television programming. Sony, Microsoft, et al will sponsor game design competitions to produce STEM-related video games. A National Lab Day will push the idea of kids actually doing science as opposed to merely reading about it in textbooks. The White House will use its bully pulpit by hosting winners of science competitions.
Of course, I think it's great that this issue is getting attention, and it would be great if American students could top international comparisons in math and science. I just want to bring up a few issues that I'm not sure are going to be addressed by all this:
1. Much of the talk is about "motivating" and "inspiring" young people to learn math and science. But I'm not sure the problem is a lack of inspiration. As discussed in this Scientific American piece (which quotes me), some 85 percent of American kids said in a Lemelson-MIT survey they are interested in science and math, and 80 percent said their schools had prepared them for a career in science. This is absolutely delusional. Barely half of kids are even prepared for college! You can think math and science are as cool as you want, but until you learn the tools, you won't actually be able to do anything truly cool at all. Sometimes the tools are boring. I absolutely love writing, but learning the rules of grammar still wasn't exactly fun. So what?
2. Many parts of the initiative are aimed at improving math and science education among under-served, or under-represented groups. For instance, Intel sent me a press release about the initiative that said "Intel will develop new models for student research programs in rural, inner-city, low-income and high-minority classrooms across the US that encourage hands-on science and math learning." This is great; much math and science education in America's less-privileged schools is truly awful. Per the president's priorities, I would also love to see more minority (and women) scientists and mathematicians.
However, this focus on under-served kids seems based on the widespread assumption that America's rich white kids are doing just fine. This isn't true. See this column I wrote for USA Today about how our top 10% would fare, internationally. The answer isn't pretty. America's place in the middle-of-the-pack, internationally, is not necessarily because of an "underclass" problem. Closing the gap between black and white students, and between poor and better-0ff students would improve things, but not nearly as much as people think it would. Any effort at making America top-of-the-world needs to face the harsh reality that even America's well-to-do suburban schools with their helicopter parents and loads of homework are, in fact, not cranking out armies of graduates ready to compete on the international stage. We live in an increasingly competitive world. The sooner we truly recognize that, the better.