On Madison visit, Obama says the U.S. needs greater emphasis on math and science education

On Madison visit, Obama says the U.S. needs greater emphasis on math and science education

MADISON – Exactly one year after his historic election to the White House, President Barack Obama came to a racially diverse charter school Wednesday to outline his plans for education reform.
While political insiders wondered whether Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett would choose the occasion to announce his plans to run for governor in 2010 – Barrett is behind a controversial plan to take over the struggling Milwaukee Public Schools – on this day there would be no such announcement.
The focus was purely on education reform, with Obama telling a tightly packed gymnasium of parents, teachers and students at Wright Middle School that the time has come to stop talking about reform and actually do it.
“American prosperity has long rested on how well we educate our children, and this has never been more true than it is today,” Obama said as he stood before a banner that read “Race to the Top,” which is the catchphrase for a $4.35 billion federal program targeted to improve schools.
“In the 21st century, when countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, there is nothing that will determine the quality of our future as a nation and the lives our children will lead more than the kind of education that we provide them,” Obama said. “Nothing is more important.”
Beyond the economic crisis that Obama inherited a year ago, the U.S. is facing long-term problems that will not go away and continue to weaken the country:

  • Manufacturing is declining and the U.S. isn’t producing as many high-tech, high-skilled jobs as it needs to. 
  • Oil producers or speculators want to constrict supply, “and next thing you know you’re paying four bucks at the pump,” Obama said. 
  • Health care costs were skyrocketing – before the economic crisis – so that families were seeing more and more out-of-pocket costs and essentially trading away salary and wages just to keep up with their health premiums.

While reforming health care and creating a clean energy economy are two major platforms of Obama’s administration, so is education reform.
“What amazes me is that week after week, month after month, he just keeps coming back to education, and he’s absolutely passionate about it, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who accompanied Obama on the visit to Madison.
Race to the Top
Last summer, Obama outlined a plan to help states and local school districts establish and enforce rigorous academic standards and assessments. In the coming weeks, the U.S. Department of Education will issue the final guidance for states under the Race to the Top initiative. The competition will be conducted in two rounds – the first starting this month and the second in June of next year – with winners announced in April and September. 
Race to the Top emphasizes the following reform areas:

  • Designing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments by encouraging states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards that builds toward college and career readiness, and that includes improved assessments designed to measure critical knowledge and higher-order thinking skills.   
  • Attracting and keeping great teachers and leaders in America’s classrooms by expanding effective support to teachers and principals; reforming and improving teacher preparation; revising teacher evaluation, compensation, and retention policies to encourage and reward effectiveness; and working to ensure that our most talented teachers are placed in the schools and subjects where they are needed the most.
  • Supporting data systems that inform decisions and improve instruction by fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system, assessing and using data to drive instruction, and making data more accessible to key stakeholders.
  • Using innovation and effective approaches to turn-around struggling schools by asking states to prioritize and transform persistently low-performing schools.
  • Demonstrating and sustaining education reform by promoting collaborations between business leaders, educators, and other stakeholders to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps, and by expanding support for high-performing public charter schools, reinvigorating math and science education, and promoting other conditions favorable to innovation and reform.

Wisconsin must emphasize science and math education
In its annual white paper report to the governor and the legislature, since 2002 the Wisconsin Technology Council has emphasized that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is vital to economic growth in Wisconsin.
“It’s not enough to say that Wisconsin can compete with those in Iowa and Minnesota,” said Tech Council President Tom Still “We need to compete with highly educated young people in India and China, and the European Union, as well. We already have some important head starts in this state, but we cannot rest on our laurels.”
When it comes to producing engineers, engineering graduates at the college level in Wisconsin have remained fairly stagnant, representing about 4 percent of the total number of college graduates, Still said. In other countries, the number of graduating engineers approaches 40 percent of all graduates.
“We really can’t compete over the long term if we don’t have enough engineers and scientists to keep our lead as an innovative nation,” Still said.
State and national workforce demands underscore the need for more students who are skilled in science, technology, engineering and math, Still said. This is unlikely to be accomplished by merely requiring an additional semester or year of instruction in Wisconsin public schools. It is more likely to be accomplished by relying on innovative public and private programs that engage students at critical points of development, he said.
Initiatives such as Project Lead the Way, First Robotics, STEM Grants through the state Department of Public Instruction and the national STEM Equity Pipeline are examples. Creating incentives for public and private school teachers to learn new practices and skills are also part of the solution, Still said.
The knowledge economy
Four out of every 10 new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training within the next decade, Obama said during a discussion with students prior to his speech.
“There was a time when if you just got a high school education and you were willing to work hard, you could get a job in a trade or in the factory that paid a middle-class wage,” he said.  “And those days are declining.  The currency of today’s economy is knowledge.
The United States, a nation that has always led the way in innovation, is now being outpaced in math and science education, Obama pointed out. Further, he said that African American and Latino students continue to lag behind their white classmates – an achievement gap that will ultimately cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars because that population represents the future workforce.
“Of course, these problems aren’t new,” Obama said. “We’ve heard about them for years. “But instead of coming together to solve them, we’ve let partisanship and petty bickering stand in the way of progress. It has been Democrat versus Republican, it’s been voucher versus public schools, it’s been more money versus more reform.” 
In some cases, people have seen schools as sort of a political spoil having to do with jobs and contracts instead of what kids are being taught, he said.
“And this status quo has held back our children, it’s held back our economy, and it’s held back our country for too long,” Obama said. “It’s time to stop just talking about education reform and start actually doing it. It’s time to make education America’s national mission.”