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Preparing Students for the Knowledge Economy

Article originially published in IDEAS LAB
To combat the vast STEM achievement gap we must prepare and inspire all students for the knowledge economy because their careers will require STEM skills.
There are countless terms thrown around in discussions of the educational needs of the United States. Preparing students for the “knowledge economy” is a critical part of that discussion – but what exactly is the knowledge economy?
In their paper entitled “The Knowledge Economy,” Stanford professors Walter W. Powell and Kaisa Snellman define it “as production and services based on knowledge-intensive activities that contribute to an accelerated pace of technical and scientific advance, as well as rapid obsolescence. The key component of a knowledge economy is a greater reliance on intellectual capabilities than on physical inputs or natural resources.”
The knowledge economy requires a higher level of skills, but it has become clear that our education system is not equipping students with the skills they need to succeed in the modern workforce. Another common term encountered is the “achievement gap.” There is great concern with the fact that African-American and Hispanic students are falling behind their white counterparts.  But when you take a close look at the achievement gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), it is horrific.
•The knowledge economy is increasingly dependent on college-educated professionals.  By 2018, the economy will create 46.8 million new jobs. Nearly two-thirds of these will require workers with at least some college education, with a slight majority requiring workers with a Bachelor’s degree or better.
•But current college completion can’t meet this need.  The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2010 only 39% of non-Hispanic whites ages 25-29 had Bachelor’s degrees; the numbers were even less for African-Americans (19%) and Hispanics (14%).
U.S. students are not college ready. The ACT just released their 2013 report on college readiness for students based on this year’s ACT scores.  Based on a composite score of math, science, English and reading, they found that only 5% of African American and 14% of Hispanic students are college ready compared to 33% of white students.
The gap in readiness for math and science is even more startling. In math, while 54% of white students are college ready, only 14% of African Americans and 30% of Hispanic students are considered college ready.  In science, 45% of white students are college ready while only 10% of African American and 21% of Hispanic students are college ready.
It is even worse for courses focused on college preparation.  Advanced Placement courses in math and science are the gateway to STEM majors and ultimately STEM careers.  While a paltry 10% of juniors and seniors took math and science AP exams, only 4% of African American students and 6% of Hispanic students took these challenging exams.
Prepare and Inspire
 To combat this vast STEM achievement gap we must prepare and inspire all students for the knowledge economy because their careers will require STEM skills.
Preparation means that our students get the rigorous math and science content knowledge necessary to make pursuing a STEM career an option. This means that they need to have great math and science teachers providing engaging and rigorous content in all of our schools.
Inspiration also comes from seeing great people working in STEM professions and having extensive engagement with the industry. The greatest source of inspiration comes from phenomenal teachers who are passionate about STEM and from quality content that provides the opportunity to discover knowledge through rigorous lessons.
The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) has worked with the University of Texas at Austin to replicate the UTeach program in 35 universities across the country with the goal of increasing the numbers of STEM experts teaching in our schools.
Right now in our schools:
•More than two-thirds of 5th-8th graders are taught math by teachers without a math degree or certification.  In 2007, approximately one-third of public middle school science teachers either did not major in science in college and/or were not certified to teach science.
•Of the 426,000 middle- and high-school math and science teachers in U.S. schools, 25,000 leave the teaching profession every year.
•According to a study by McKinsey & Co., the U.S. attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college students, with nearly half of teachers coming from the bottom third.
Similarly, despite the frequency with which high school physics appears as a pre-requisite for STEM majors, it continues to be the area in which U.S. public schools have the greatest shortage of teachers.  According to the Task Force on Teacher Preparation in Physics, “of the approximately 3,100 teachers who are new to teaching physics each year, only about 1,100 – or 35% – have a degree in physics or physics education.”
But great teachers are just part of the equation. Students must be prepared.  NMSI’s Comprehensive AP Program has worked to prepare students by providing the expertise, training, resources, support and content to turn schools into centers of college and career readiness.  NMSI works with over 462 schools across the nation and the results have been nothing short of astounding.
•In just the first year of the program, across all 462 schools, the average increase of qualifying math and science AP scores for African American and Hispanic students is 105% compared to 16.2% nationally.
•After schools complete the three-year program, the increase is 235% for those students compared to 57% nationally.
Prior to joining the NMSI program, our schools accounted for just 1% of the total math and science passing scores in the country. Today NMSI schools account for 6% of the total even though we are in just 2% of the schools.  The program is truly helping close the STEM gap for more students.
The STEM achievement gap means that jobs in the knowledge economy will continue to be vacant while millions struggle to earn a living wage. To prepare all students for STEM careers, America must have a sufficient number of great teachers with the right tools and support to reach students. NMSI and our funding partners are working hard to ensure every child has the opportunity to succeed.