A massive infusion of taxpayer funding for local school districts to overcome pandemic learning losses represents a major opportunity to bolster ailing K-12 science education in the U.S.
Covid relief bills are providing some $192 billion for schools, roughly six times the amount of the 2021 base federal funding to schools. Local communities and educators should seize on this unique moment to set a new trajectory for all students across the country, wherever they live and whatever their backgrounds.
Science-focused education is among the greatest levers to accessing opportunity and is unmatched in unlocking student potential. But in many locales around the country, science is taught as an afterthought, what Dr. Margaret Honey, president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, calls an “anemic” teaching approach .
“We teach it as a memorization exercise. We don’t teach it as a domain of inquiry and problem-solving and question-asking — all of the skills that are essential in today’s world,” she said during a recent panel discussion on K-12 science education by the Collaborative for Student Success. “That’s criminal.”
At the National Math and Science Initiative, a non-profit that works with local, state and national partners to increase educational opportunities for all students, our strategy for improving the quality of STEM education is yielding dividends around the country.
We believe it can serve as a model for others to adopt:
First must be a major focus on getting all kids the knowledge and skills to succeed in Advanced Placement science and math classes, where they evolve into students ready to take on the challenges of college. Our own College Readiness Program, with its emphasis on AP science and math, has reached more than1,400 public high schools across 36 states and D.C. and resulted in very positive student outcomes across the range of school settings — urban and rural, traditional and charter.
After one year of the program, partner schools see an average 41 percent increase in AP participation and an average 35 percent increase in college readiness for all students, with similar increases for female, Black and Latino students. When students are ready for college, they are more likely to graduate from college. And when they are better grounded in science and math and have the confidence that AP classes affords them, they are more likely to consider degrees in those fields.
Second, school districts must lay the foundation for student success by ensuring that K-12 educators have the skills and high-quality instructional materials required to teach STEM more effectively. In our own effort led by expert educators, teachers build and maintain subject matter expertise in science and math, enhance their leadership skills and prepare students to be creative problem solvers. We have trained more than 65,000 teachers in STEM thus far. Confident teachers create confident students eager to explore science and math in college.
Third, the nation needs more STEM teachers, especially teachers of color. The data show that educational outcomes improve significantly for Black students when they have as few as one black teacher. Yet only 6 percent of secondary STEM teachers identify as Black.
A proven model for boosting the pipeline is the work done by the University of Texas and its UTEACH Institute. The program promotes collaboration among college-level education, math and science departments to introduce STEM majors to teaching and prepares them to become highly qualified teachers.
My organization and the UTeach Institute are working with leaders at 45 universities to create UTeach programs across the country. We are also working alongside 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities to create programs for teacher preparation on those campuses. The effort aims to significantly increase the number of highly qualified Black STEM teachers in American schools.
Science is the wellspring from which our modern life and economy blossom. From covid vaccines to blockchain, mobile phones to space exploration — all these innovations began as an idea coaxed into existence by people rooted in science. And people who have succeeded in science often tell a story of that one inspiring science teacher in elementary, middle or high school who opened the door to the future. It is no overstatement to say that for the sake of the nation, we need millions more of those stories.
A former NASA astronaut, Harris is a physician and CEO of the National Math + Science Initiative, which is based in Dallas.