States taking the lead on STEM education

American students’ alarmingly bad performance on domestic and international assessments highlights the need to better educate them in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Although schools and districts across the country are making tremendous strides in providing opportunities for quality STEM education, outdated teacher qualification standards in many states make it difficult to find teachers who are trained and experienced in these subjects.

Right now, one-third of math and science teachers in our country’s public schools did not major in math and science in college and/or are not certified to teach them. Yet professionals with degrees and work experience in STEM fields often cannot teach K-12 students without a lengthy and costly certification process. In fact, 24 of the 50 states have eligibility restrictions for who may teach STEM courses.

Many states are starting to take the initiative to make it easier to get qualified STEM teachers into the classroom. South Carolina’s Work Based Licensure Area Competency Requirements make it easier for STEM experts to teach. A bill under consideration in the Minnesota House of Representatives contains provisions that would allow district and charter schools to recruit community experts as teachers. In Virginia, lawmakers are considering a bill that would lead to the creation of industry certification exams. And in West Virginia, the State Senate has proposed a bill that would allow the superintendent to issue alternative teaching certifications in areas of “critical need.”

The need for experienced teachers is acute. The 2013 scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – often called the Nation’s Report Card – revealed that only 26 percent of U.S. 12th graders scored at or above proficient in math. Nearly 40 percent of young people entering the workforce, college and military are unable to perform even basic mathematics. And when compared with their international peers on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, U.S. 15-year-olds placed 26th in math – behind Liechtenstein, Iceland and the Czech Republic.

Our students’ performance in science is equally alarming. The most recent NAEP science assessment of 12th graders revealed a 21 percent proficiency rate and a 40 percent failure rate. On the PISA, American students came in 21st in science – below Estonia, Poland and Ireland. Given that the United States spends more than any other developed nation on K-12 students – over $600 billion a year – these results are tragic.

Why does this matter? Because our failure to help students master STEM skills deprives millions of them the opportunity to secure productive, meaningful and well-paying careers. When Forbes magazine highlights the college majors that present graduates with the greatest job prospects and highest earnings, engineering and math fields dominate the list. Engineering concentrations alone make up one-third of the most valuable majors. And even for students who will not pursue an engineering or math-related career field, the skills they develop through participation in STEM programs – such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration – are some of the most in-demand skills by employers across all sectors.

Moreover, the skills gap – the disconnect between the skills demanded by employers and those which our current workforce possesses – imperils our economy and standing in the world. “Endangering Prosperity,” a 2013 report by Stanford, Harvard and University of Munich researchers, estimated that if U.S. students were simply brought up to the achievement levels of their Canadian counterparts, “The average annual income of every worker in the United States over the next 80 years would be 20 percent higher,” with a total gain of nearly $80 trillion.

Of course, there are examples of great success across our nation and places where schools and communities are partnering to support high-quality STEM educational experiences that create great value for students. But this work could be done on a far greater scale if legislators and state leaders address restrictive policy barriers. One of these barriers exists in the form of state teacher certification requirements that often prohibit experienced STEM professionals from teaching high school or middle school courses in their areas of expertise without having to take additional, often unrelated, coursework.

Thanks to leadership from South Carolina, Minnesota, Virginia and West Virginia on examining teacher qualification requirements, the trend is heading in the right direction. By updating antiquated policies, state lawmakers and leaders can make STEM education more accessible to students, and as a result, make significant progress in reducing the skills gap and better preparing America’s students for the global economy. We cannot wait another year and sacrifice another generation of students.