Report: Business Should Use Clout to Promote Real Reform

Published May 14, 2011

A new report calls on the nation’s business community to take bolder steps toward reforming the nation’s education system in order to improve its science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) performance.

The changes they propose will not be easy, acknowledge the authors of “The Case for Being Bold: A New Agenda for Business in Improving STEM Education,” commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce.

“The most difficult challenge will be in recognizing that even the most promising proposals are greatly weakened by the current outdated, 19th century models of schooling and teaching,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute and the lead author of the Chamber report.

U.S. Students Lag
Business groups and policy experts have argued for years over whether outdated approaches to public education produce a lagging STEM performance nationwide. What’s clear is U.S. students perform poorly on international assessments, ranking 17th and 25th respectively in science and math literacy on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.

A poorly educated workforce lacking skills in science, technology, and math hurts U.S. economic growth and sends businesses elsewhere for workers, says Cheryl Oldham, vice president of the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce.

“We have heard of a very well-known large technology company in the United States that has gone over and built a manufacturing plant in Israel—not because it’s cheaper, not because it’s safer, but because that’s where the skilled workers are—and so that’s … obviously, particularly troubling,” she said.

The problem is not so much a lack of good proposals as an outdated system that impedes the innovation needed to make those approaches work, Oldham said. The report says business leaders are uniquely positioned to break such logjams.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, less than 16 percent of the nation’s bachelor’s degree recipients were in natural science and engineering fields during the past five years, and just 14 percent of undergraduates currently major in science, technology, or math-related subjects. By comparison, China awards nearly half of all undergraduate degrees in STEM fields.

Rewriting Job Descriptions
Instead of offering a one-size-fits-all set of solutions for businesses to follow, the report suggests principles—involving rewriting teachers’ jobs descriptions and redesigning schools—that each business leader can apply in his or her own way to effect education reform in the local community.

“The business community should think of itself not as an anonymous angel investor, providing money so nonprofit experts can experiment with pet projects,” said Olivia Meeks, an education policy analyst at AEI and a coauthor of the Chamber report. Instead, she said, businesses should participate in reforms as “a partner that not only seeks out and funds the best new ideas … but also dedicates some of its philanthropic money to developing its own ideas and programs,”

Among the more important reforms needed involve luring STEM experts into the classroom. Typical approaches usually involve some type of performance pay. However, Meeks said, without innovation in and out of the classroom, high-achieving science students may be left behind.

Meeks points to a 2007 survey of Advanced Placement teachers by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute which found 77 percent of teachers agreed that “getting underachieving students to reach ‘proficiency’ has become so important that the needs of the advanced students take a back seat.”

More Science Teachers Needed
Getting enough qualified STEM teachers into the classroom has proven a challenge in recent years. The problem that begins in higher education and works backward.

Kentucky State Sen. Ken Winters (R-Murray), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, testified earlier this year the state’s universities had graduated only one high-school physics teacher during each of the last two years.

The trickle-down effect is being felt in K-12 education, where only 31 percent of physics courses nationwide were taught by a certified physics teacher with a degree in the subject in 2007-08, according to a Schools and Staffing Survey report.

Innovative Programs Offered
Among initiatives highlighted by the report to meet this challenge is IBM’s Transition to Teaching Program, “which puts IBM’s top employees on the fast track to becoming accredited teachers once they decide to leave the company.”

Other companies are working with public school districts to improve STEM courses. Pharmaceutical giant Merck’s Institute for Science Education is partnering with New Jersey public schools to match their science and math curriculum standards, instruction, and professional development with the needs of the local workforce.

“Unfortunately, these noteworthy initiatives are the exception, not the rule, and they have yet to be replicated on a broad scale,” Meeks said.

Urged to Use ‘Political Heft’
Businesses can use their considerable influence and political “heft” to overcome antiquated governance structures and powerful special interests that keep much reform from taking place, Meeks said.

“Too many corporate leaders prefer to avoid conflict that can spark bad feelings or negative publicity,” she said. “They want education reform, but they want it quiet, collaborative, and calm. But fixing dysfunctional organizations is always messy, and taking back prerogatives from entrenched interests is inevitably a bruising struggle.”

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is vice president for policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Internet Info:

Frederick M. Hess, Andrew P. Kelly, and Olivia Meeks: “The Case for Being Bold: A New Agenda for Business in Improving STEM Education,” Institute for a Competitive Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 2011: