Throughout much of the Senate hearing process to confirm a new leader for the Department of Education, the conversation orbited around hot-button political issues — school choice, charter schools, Common Core and others.
But in order to effectively address these questions of how we educate American students, newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos must first step out of the political fray and set a clear vision of what we’re preparing them for.
Discussions around issues such as school choice and standardized tests are helpful in determining the best way to arrive at the desired educational destination — in the same way you might decide which airline and route will take you to where you want to go for a trip. But for any journey, the airline and route are far less important than the destination.
The same is true for the U.S. education system. We need a clear vision of where the system needs to go, and why, before settling questions of how to get there.
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related employment in the United States grew 10.5 percent — more than 800,000 jobs — between 2009 and 2015, according to a January 2017 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If our nation's job market is trending this way now, imagine the exponential demand for qualified STEM employees in the future.
But while demand has increased, the American workforce has not been able to meet it. In a 2015 publication, the BLS identified great shortages in certain STEM talent pipelines to the job market, especially in computer science. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2012 famously predicted a shortage of 1 million STEM professionals in the next decade.
When employers can’t find people to fill their job vacancies, it’s not a job market problem. It’s an education problem. Our schools haven’t given students the skills – and experiences – they need to be successful in the marketplace.
In the World Economic Forum's 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report, the U.S. ranks 33rd in math and science education. To match the demand for STEM-related jobs in our country, we will need to chart a new course.
As the leader of the Department of Education, DeVos’ most important task will be to cast a vision for what education can be for our next generation to meet the demands of a global economy. Our students need the skills to be critical thinkers, collaborators, and problem solvers. They also need to understand the options available to them.
Strong STEM education at all levels of education can help prepare students with these high demand skills, but it will require that we reframe how we teach them. Learning must be more than just content. When we engage students with project-based learning, students not only learn math and science, they apply math and science.
Project-based learning helps students see the relevancy of science and math to their lives and inspires them to pursue it. Instead of simply teaching content, our goal should be that students can apply their skills in situations outside the classroom. Not only can this build the abilities within our country’s next generation to meet the skills gap in our job market, but it can also excite an entire generation of students.
Instead of becoming distracted by politics, DeVos should focus on putting first things first for the education of our students. When students start their journey of education, we must ensure that whatever plane they’re on is headed to the right destination, one that gives them the STEM skills they will need to thrive in our global economy.
Vince M. Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way" and the New York Times bestselling author of “One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Crisis.”