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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Obama says STEM Education Critical for Competing with Asia

President Obama gave a speech today on the "Educate to Innovate" Campaign and the Science Teaching and Mentoring Awards, emphasizing the importance of STEM education for maintaining American leadership and successfully competing with the rapidly growing economies of Asia. As we found in our recent report, "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," Asian nations like China, South Korea, and Japan are launching massive government investment projects to dominate the clean-tech sector, which promises to be one of the largest new growth sectors of the next few decades.

In order to catch up, the United States will need a national clean-tech education strategy on par with the National Defense Education Act of 1958, as my colleague and I wrote back in 2008. The Obama administration's RE-ENERGYSE proposal was a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it was rejected by Congress last year. Will the administration and Congress work together on a new proposal in 2010 on the scale we need to win the clean energy race? Stay tuned.

Here are some of Obama's remarks:

"Whether it's improving our health or harnessing clean energy, protecting our security or succeeding in the global economy, our future depends on reaffirming America's role as the world's engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. And that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in math, science, technology, and engineering.

But despite the importance of education in these subjects, we have to admit we are right now being outpaced by our competitors. One assessment shows American 15-year-olds now ranked 21st in science and 25th in math when compared to their peers around the world. Think about that -- 21st and 25th. That's not acceptable. And year after year the gap between the number of teachers we have and the number of teachers we need in these areas is widening. The shortfall is projected to climb past a quarter of a million teachers in the next five years -- and that gap is most pronounced in predominately poor and minority schools.

And meanwhile, other nations are stepping up -- a fact that was plain to see when I visited Asia at the end of last year. The President of South Korea and I were having lunch, and I asked him, what's the biggest education challenge that you have? He told me his biggest challenge in education wasn't budget holes, it wasn't crumbling schools -- it was that the parents were too demanding. (Laughter.) He's had to import thousands of foreign teachers because parents insisted on English language training in elementary school. The mayor of Shanghai, China -- a city of over 20 million people -- told me that even in such a large city, they had no problem recruiting teachers in whatever subject, but particularly math and science, because teaching is revered and the pay scales are comparable to professions like doctors.

So make no mistake: Our future is on the line. The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow. To continue to cede our leadership in education is to cede our position in the world. That's not acceptable to me and I know it's not acceptable to any of you. And that's why my administration has set a clear goal: to move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade."

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