Educators Applaud Obama's Push for Math, Science Teaching

President Barack Obama's State of the Union address is earning high marks from education advocates, who voiced support for his push to improve math and science education, regardless of the concerns about national debt.

"For me it was very, very positive and forward-looking," said Shirley Malcom, director of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "This is a future-focused approach."

Obama pointed out the challenges facing the nation: As many as a quarter of students in the United States don't complete high school, and the quality of our math and science education lags behind other nations. Meanwhile, many of the new jobs being created over the next decade will require more than a high-school education, Obama said.

He touted initiatives already put forward by his administration, including plans to build up the nation's community colleges, where adults can be retrained for the jobs available in a changing economy, and the competitive grant funding program for states, called Race to the Top, intended to help reform an education system that isn't giving results. In the meantime, his administration has committed to training 100,000 new math, science, engineering and technology teachers over the course of the next decade.

He also called for a shift in attitude. "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair," Obama said.

"In South Korea, teachers are known as 'nation builders.' Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect," he said.

The broader context of economic development is important, according to Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

"One of the things we do with education is we use it as a lever," Eberle told LiveScience. "So by saying we want to be competitive and we want to have jobs and manufacturing resources, if we don't have an educated workforce, we can't have those."

Money talks

Funding, and potential cuts to the federal budget, are an inescapable part of the equation.

In his address, Obama proposed that starting this year, the United States freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years, which he said would reduce the federal deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade. Republicans, meanwhile, want more drastic action, and some conservatives are calling for cuts that would produce $2.5 trillion in savings over the next decade. 

In response to the address, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) both emphasized the need to reduce federal spending and debt, which they described as onerous. The national debt has increased by about $3 trillion during Obama's tenure, they said.

"On this current path, when my three children — who are now 6, 7 and 8 years old — are raising their own children, the federal government will double in size, and so will the taxes they pay," Ryan said in a statement.

Neither representative directly addressed education. However, Ryan stated that innovation is best left out of the hands of bureaucracy. [Infographic: Science R&D Spending in the Federal Budget]

In his speech, Obama seemed to anticipate this response.

"Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you feel the impact," Obama said.

James Gentile, president and chief executive officer of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a foundation that promotes scientific innovation, said he would have used starker words.

"I would have said 'If we don't train and education our young, if we take money away from them, then what we are doing is the equivalent of eating our young," Gentile told LiveScience.

However, money may not be the key to raising achievement and to economic prosperity, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Since 1985, inflation-adjusted federal spending on K-12 education has increased 138 percent. Yet, indicators of education improvement — such as increases in academic achievement and graduation rates — have remained flat, according to an analysis on the foundation’s The Foundry blog.

In reality, the federal government plays a limited role in funding kindergarten through 12th grade education. These public schools get most of their funding from states and localities, particularly through property taxes. The federal government does have the power to make teaching science a competitive and desirable career, according to Gentile.

Like others, he lauded the plan for 100,000 additional teachers in science and technology-related fields, with the caveat that teachers need to be persuaded to stay in the profession.

Nation's Report Card

National test scores released recently reveal that U.S. students aren't reaching their targets. A sample of fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders took the science test in 2009, as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the "Nation's Report Card."

Among fourth-graders, 34 percent reached or exceeded proficiency – a measure of solid academic performance, as did 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders. (To achieve proficiency, a fourth-grader would, for example, have to recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object, while a 12th-grader would need to evaluate two methods to help control an invasive species.)

The trend of scores declining for older students is not a new one.

"If you look at those scores, it has been the case all along," Malcom said. "The longer people stay in the schools, the worse the performance becomes."

The United States doesn't fare particularly well on international comparisons either. In 2009, the Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-olds' performance in literacy, math and science showed the United States did not break into the top-scoring countries in any of these fields.   

Eberle attributed some of this to culture and priorities, noting that the federal No Child Left Behind law that requires schools to test student performance annually emphasizes math and reading, but not science.

Alfred Posamentier, the dean of the school of education at Mercy College and a professor of math education, said he did not put much stock in international comparisons.

"I think for [Obama] to say 'We need to do more math and science' is a good thing, but it's not because we are so bad, it's because the modern world requires us to do it," Posamentier said.

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.