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STEM as Urban Myth?

Why Skills Matter, Politically
By Fawn Johnson

Since when did the conversation about education in the United States morph from leaving no child behind to finding and keeping science and engineering college majors? Answer: Since President Obama figured out that linking education to a skill-based economy was the best way to call attention to an issue normally relegated to the third tier of politics.

Last year's State of the Union address marked a noted departure from the president's previous speech--he emphasized higher education and barely touched on pre-K through 12 issues. Previously he had touted innovations in teacher training and student achievement.

This year, a big part of Obama's speech will focus on overhauling the nation's immigration system. One of his biggest selling points for his immigration plan is the economic growth that will come from allowing highly skilled foreign college graduates and entrepreneurs to remain in the country. These are, after all, the job creators. The more controversial parts of Obama's immigration plan--how to structure a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or special visas for agriculture workers--will be couched with less detail and lots of wiggle room.

The dearth of science, technology, and engineering college graduates is bad enough that lawmakers from both political parties feel comfortable asking to bring in more skilled foreign workers. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., last month introduced legislation to increase the number of visas available to skilled foreign workers. No one expects that bill to proceed on its own in the Senate when Obama is seeking something more comprehensive, but clearly the lawmakers want to call attention to the issue.

The bottom line is that skills sell. In politics, that's golden.

What happens to our home-grown kids? A recent survey from information technology association CompTIA, Youth Opinions of Careers in IT, found that while 97 percent of teens and young adults report loving or liking technology, only 18 percent report a definitive interest in a career in technology.

College is also out of reach cost-wise for a lot of families. Employers and college administrators alike bemoan the lack of shorter and cheaper ways to get people up to speed tech-wise through associate's degrees or certificate programs. Expect Obama to include a line about community colleges in his State of the Union speech, and to repeat previous complaints about the cost of college. Again, the selling point is about the skills.

How can skills be integrated into conversations about pre-K through 12 education? What can government do to encourage kids to be more interested in math and science? Is there any danger to looking at education through the lens of worker skill development? What are the advantages of encouraging foreign students to come to the United States for keeps? Why are there fewer American college students pursuing science and technology majors?


STEM as Urban Myth?
By Bill Mathis

Maybe it’s time we turned the STEM shortage political bloviations over to Mythbusters. We haven't heard this many anguished cries of alarm since Eisenhower and Sputnik. At least the 1958 National Defense Education Act resulted in a massive improvement in science textbooks and instruction – an approach with more promise than importing indentured foreign workers.

The first step in busting this myth is to take a look at the federal government's Bureau of Labor Statistics projections of the fastest growing jobs. Only two or three of the top 30 could be considered as requiring extensive STEM training. Even for the few STEM jobs projected to have dramatic percentage increases, these are big increases to a small number. For instance, the 62% increase in biomedical engineers represents less than 10,000 new jobs nationally -- compared to the need for more than 70 times that number of new home health aides. Instead of the STEM obsession, what is needed is training for the far larger number of the forgotten middle level jobs.

Of the nation's nine million people with STEM degrees, only about three million work in STEM fields. Despite the lamentations of employers about not being able to hire qualified people (which is true in some locations), the real problem is that there are too few jobs for the qualified people available. Further, when businesses can off-shore jobs or hire foreign nationals at a fraction of the cost, there is no incentive to hire our home-grown kids.

The STEM urban myth rests on a greater unexamined myth of “economic competitiveness in a global market.” The problem is that universal, high level primary and secondary STEM education at the primary and secondary levels doesn’t make it into the World Economic Forum’s twelve pillars of economic competitiveness. Adopting “world class education standards” and tests doesn’t make the list either. Let’s get real: the inability of the federal government to resolve its own fiscal problems has far more to do with our economic competitiveness than high school math requirements.

STEM as urban myth has several bad implications for education and social policy. First, it excites pressure to add even more science and math high school requirements -- even though they encourage the glut in an over-supplied field. (Common Core believers are pressing forward in science based on the myth). It also wastes educational resources teaching skills which most students will never use. In the short run, for those students with limited interest or proclivities in STEM areas, it increases alienation from school and encourages drop-outs. As only 18% of United States kids are interested in a STEM career, that may be about right as “the United States’ education system produces a supply of qualified [science and engineering] graduates in much greater numbers than the jobs available.”

More importantly, the myopic concentration on higher, harder STEM skills for all students distracts us from the purposes of education and overshadows the true skills for the twenty-first century. These include things like communications, responsibility, teamwork, evaluating information, listening, negotiating and creativity.

So the real question may not be “since when” did NCLB morph into narrow STEM skills training. It may be “since when” did we forget the broader purposes of education in a democratic society?

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William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is a Senior Policy Advisor to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of school...