Ramp Up Education in Math, Science December 2007

Published in the Des Moines Register

Of all the issues facing Iowans, none presents as compelling an impact on the state as the proficiency of our children in mathematics and science.

Iowans historically have understood that education and the economy are interrelated. The will to act on that understanding is about to be tested - and the ability of Iowa's work force to compete globally in bioscience, advanced manufacturing and information solutions depends on our response.

Of the 20 fastest-growing occupations awaiting our children, 15 will require high math and science proficiency, according to The National Academies of Science. The highest-growth jobs in Iowa through 2012, according to Iowa Workforce Development, will be in health care and in computer software and applications.

At the same time, IWD asserts that the greatest factor transforming Iowa's labor market is competition from globalization. This means Iowa's work force will have to be up to the task. One measurement of preparedness is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows that Iowa students in general perform slightly above the national average in math and science.

This is hardly an encouraging comparison. Seventeen-year-olds in the United States score well below average on math and science assessments when compared to youth in 41 other countries.

Exacerbating concerns about academic performance and our STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) work force is an unprecedented shortage of qualified teachers. Nationwide, 200,000 math and science teachers are expected to retire in the next decade, leaving the United States short by 283,000 highly qualified teachers in 2015.

Iowa is already 173 teachers short in science and 121 teachers short in math. According to the Iowa Department of Education, 93 of Iowa's physics teachers are eligible for retirement, while only 14 entered the profession from Iowa colleges and universities.

This convergence of educational, economic and work-force conditions is tantamount to the perfect storm - one that Iowa's new economy will not weather if action is not taken.

Fortunately, the Iowa Board of Regents' Mathematics and Science Education Collaborative Initiative, a joint effort among the University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, has proposed a comprehensive plan for addressing this problem.

The $5.5 million plan, designed with broad stakeholder input, proposes a series of high-impact projects coordinated by a Regents Mathematics and Science Education Institute that would provide an organizational structure for long-term, sustainable collaboration and cooperation. Fully funded and implemented, the Regents Initiative will 1) recruit more college students into math and science teaching, 2) professionally develop and retain teachers in STEM disciplines, 3) create new pathways for middle and high school students into math and science careers through curriculum innovations, and 4) increase the number of STEM faculty at community colleges.

Stakeholders agree that the plan could double the number of math and science teachers produced by Iowa universities in five years. The quantity and quality of math and science course options for students across the state would improve, resulting in better preparedness for college and the work force. Additionally, more young Iowans will enter math and science-reliant programs when more well-trained and diversely representative teachers meet the growing demand.

That so many educational investors from across public and private sectors agree on a course of action suggests high-priority consideration in the next legislative session. Those on the front lines of Iowa's economy understand that the initiative's plan is essential to Iowa's future. The only question is whether we have the public will to implement it.