Archive for March 29th, 2012


competing in stem

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Teaching more engineering and math classes in U.S. schools won’t be enough to encourage U.S. engineering competitiveness in future years. Increased competitiveness needs to start with hard elementary and secondary educational reforms. 

Calling for such reforms is typically the purview of the educational policy analysts, but engineers need to understand what’s on the table here.

Economist Eric Hanushek has spent many years analyzing United States elementary and secondary school education numbers. Hanushek, a Hoover Institute Fellow at Stanford University, has some sobering things to say about engineering education in this country.

Last August, he teamed with a fellow economist and two education researchers to look at how U.S. students fare when compared to those in other countries. A short summary of the report and a link to a PDF download of the complete report are available.

By comparing U.S. and international test scores using a well-defined methodology, the authors found that U.S. students who graduated in 2011 demonstrated a 32 percent math proficiency rate. With that number, the U.S. came in 32nd among the nations that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment.

“Performance levels among the countries ranked 23rd to 31st are not significantly different from that of the U.S. in a statistical sense, yet 22 countries do significantly outperform the United States in the share of students reaching the proficiency level in math,” according to the report.

“Six countries plus Shanghai and Hong Kong had majorities of students performing at least at the proficiency level, while the United States had less than one-third,” the report states.

For example, 58 percent of Korean students and 56 percent of Finnish students performed at or above a proficient level. Other countries in which a majority—or near majority—of students performed at or above the proficiency level included Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands. Many other nations also had math proficiency rates well above that of the United States, including Germany, 45 percent, Australia, 44 percent, and France, 39 percent.

Hanushek has some ideas about what can be done about these numbers.

“The stakes are large enough we should consider more serious reform than reducing class size by half a student,” he recently told Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Hanushek calls for federal policies to promote more effective teachers in the classroom, citing work he’s done on this topic in the past.

“If you replaced the bottom 5 to 8 percent of our teachers with just an average teacher, our estimates suggest U.S. performance would rise to the top of the world. But that’s a radical change that not many people want to talk about.”

Without such radical reform, students won’t be ready to enter college engineering programs, their performance in those programs will suffer, and the U.S. economic future suffers as well, he said.

Many scientists and engineers have called for an educational emphasis on STEM subjects at the elementary and secondary school level. In doing so, they must also include calls for the type of radical educational reform Hanushek and economists and educational researchers talk about.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

March 2012

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