Editor’s note: Mary Sanchez’s column is not available today.
By Gina Schatteman
As an Iowan, I am proud of the students from all over the state who arrive in my University of Iowa physiology classes engaged and eager to learn. Yet that eagerness does not hide the fact that many of them are poorly prepared for college.
U.S. kids are being shortchanged, but because data on student preparedness can be confusing or even misleading, parents might believe their kids are doing just fine.
We are not educating them to compete for middle-class jobs in the global marketplace. In tests of 15-year-olds from 57 countries, U.S. students rank 35th in math and 29th in science. Nearly one in four haven’t mastered basic scientific concepts, and American students rank 20th in the proportion of students who receive top scores.
How are we misleading parents? The United States relies on a patchwork of state standards and tests that leads to confusing results. More than 85 percent of kids are considered “proficient” in science in Mississippi, but when the National Center for Educational Statistics’ NAEP exam was administered to a sampling of those same kids, only 18 percent passed muster. Our system makes it difficult for parents to understand how their children are doing and easy for states and school districts to sweep failures under the carpet.
A well-educated populace is essential to our economic vitality. Economic growth depends on innovation, and innovation depends largely on progress in engineering and science. In the past, we’ve had a remarkable cadre of innovators who designed new products and processes, but our dominance is slipping as our students’ performance declines relative to our competitors’ around the world.
Historically, what talent we lacked, we imported. But as the children in other nations become better educated and their home economies grow, the pull to leave diminishes. Thus, the United States must become more reliant on homegrown talent — talent our schools fail to develop.
In recognition of the looming crisis, governors from 48 states (including Iowa) and three territories recently developed a set of national math and reading standards and are discussing developing science standards. This is an important step forward in setting a high bar for all students and increasing transparency for parents.
President Barack Obama has gotten into the act through his Race to the Top program, which encourages education innovation. He also announced the Educate to Innovate campaign, a series of related efforts to get the nation behind science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education.
A part of this initiative calls on STEM educators to work with local teachers and after-school programs to bring high-quality STEM experiences to kids. Today, on National Lab Day, the UI is holding the Iowa STEM Symposium. Through hands-on learning, 150 middle school students will explore STEM-related careers while Eastern Iowa teachers and leaders discuss partnerships for enhancing STEM education.
The time is late, but not too late, to inspire and educate the next generation of innovators and skilled workers. It will take all of us pulling together, pressuring our politicians, working with our local school boards and asking local academic institutions and businesses to help. We can get this done and we must do it now.
Gina Schatteman is an associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Iowa. College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She has helped recruit more than 200 scientific organizations to participate in National Lab Day activities and developed materials for volunteers.