America's Biggest Problem is Not Guns in Schools, But Bad Math and Science Teachers


Let’s play connect the dots.

“The strength of a teacher’s academic background … is strongly correlated to student achievement.”

“69% of United States public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught mathematics by a teacher without a degree or certificate in mathematics.”

“Sixth graders who fail math … have a 10 to 20% chance of graduating high school.”

Worried? You should be. In discussions of domestic issues, science and technology policy is often left on the back-burner. It doesn’t cause shootings, stock market dips, or scandals — big, flashy events that occupy our TV screens for a few weeks and create policy windows for advocates to take advantage of, like the current one allowing gun control legislation to move forward.

Science doesn’t work like that. Big life-changing discoveries come on the backs of years of meticulous basic science research. Most scientists and science educators have neither fame nor fortune. The non-DOD federal R&D allocation in the president’s 2013 budget, for thousands of projects across multiple agencies, is $10 billion less than the entire R&D budget for defense.

In 2005, the National Academies were charged with the writing of a report detailing the “top 10 actions” that policymakers could undertake to ensure continued U.S. competitiveness in the science and technology fields. The ominously named “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” dutifully detailed the potential impact of proposed programs, including retraining of the current STEM teacher base and recruitment of 10,000 new teachers to the field each year, specific funding for early-career researchers, and the creation of DARPA’s energy twin, ARPA-E.

Five years later, with the panicked subtitle “Rapidly Approaching Category 5,” an updated version of the report was issued, noting that in that time “a great deal has changed … and a great deal has not changed.” Although many recommendations had general bipartisan support, funding was squeezed out in the face of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the majority have yet to be properly implemented. There was widespread excitement at the extent to which President Obama’s inaugural address emphasized climate science and energy issues, but I think it’s a premature victory lap: The nation’s entire science policy infrastructure deserves attention.

Science, technology, and innovation have been romanticized in the public eye with the image of the lone researcher having a eureka moment in his basement and rushing out with his new innovation that will save the world. Any scientist will tell you that it doesn’t work like that. Science isn’t magic, but a process that happens in groups and with vast amounts of support.

The science and tech pipeline, from schools to universities to the private sector, is a dance of disparate entities, so many that they practically require intense coordination at the federal level to produce properly. This isn’t so much about pumping money into the system as it is about creating a science policy climate that spurs innovation and additive gains. 2+2=5 should be policy we can all agree on.

It is crucial that policymakers remember that science and tech policy is not an on/off switch, but an investment. Solid state physics research in the 1960s, funded by a strong post-WWII and Sputnik-era science infrastructure, eventually lead to the invention of the iPod (and lest we forget, the subsequent creation of jobs.) The iPods of tomorrow won’t ever be invented without serious attention to science and technology today.