Commentary

Mathis: STEM as Vermont’s urban myth?

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by William J. Mathis, the managing director of the National Education Policy Center who served as a Vermont superintendent of schools. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of any group with which he is affiliated.

Maybe it’s time we turned the shortage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) political bloviations over to Mythbusters. We haven’t heard this many anguished cries of alarm since Eisenhower and Sputnik. At least the 1958 National Defense Education Act resulted in a massive improvement in science textbooks and instruction – an approach with more promise than our current practice of importing indentured foreign workers.

The first step in busting the myth is to take a look at the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics projections of the fastest growing jobs. Only two or three of the top 30 could be considered as requiring extensive STEM training. Even for the few STEM jobs projected to have dramatic percentage increases, these are big increases to a small number. For instance, the 62 percent increase in biomedical engineers represents less than 10,000 new jobs nationally — compared to the need for more than 70 times that number of new home health aides.

To be sure, a number of STEM jobs in the state have high percentage increases. Yet, again, these are big percentage increases to small numbers. For the decade 2008 to 2018, software engineers are projected to increase by only 361 new positions.

Of the nation’s nine million people with STEM degrees, only about three million work in STEM fields. Despite the lamentations of employers about not being able to hire qualified people (which is true in some locations), the real problem is that there are too few jobs for the qualified people available. Further, when businesses can off-shore jobs or hire foreign nationals at a fraction of the cost, there is no incentive to hire our home-grown kids.

In Vermont, the pattern is the same — except for registered nurses, none of our fastest growing jobs require STEM training. To be sure, a number of STEM jobs in the state have high percentage increases. Yet, again, these are big percentage increases to small numbers. For the decade 2008 to 2018, software engineers are projected to increase by only 361 new positions. But, in a “Call to Action for Vermont” STEM Connector says, in bold, red headlines, that the state needs 19,000 such workers.  That sounds rather alarming! At least until you dig a little deeper. Georgetown University’s prestigious Center on Education and the Workforce (which generated the numbers) calculates that’s only 4.7 percent of our workforce. A demand that is easily met provided we have jobs to attract our young adults to come home. Does Vermont have a problem with math and science achievement? Setting aside exaggerations based on inflated “standards,” when Vermont scores are compared to nations we rank sixth in math and seventh in science in the world.

The STEM urban myth rests on a greater unexamined myth of “economic competitiveness in a global market.” The problem is that universal, high level primary and secondary STEM education at the primary and secondary levels doesn’t make it into the World Economic Forum’s twelve pillars of economic competitiveness. Adopting “world class education standards” and standardized tests don’t make the list either. Let’s get real: the inability of the federal government to resolve its own fiscal problems, our national credit rating and the housing bubble have far more to do with our economic competitiveness than high school math requirements.

STEM as urban myth has several bad implications for education and social policy. First, it excites pressure to add even more science and math high school requirements — even though they encourage the glut in an over-supplied field. (Common Core believers are pressing forward in science standards based on the myths). It also wastes educational resources teaching skills which most students will never use. In the short run, for those students with limited interest or proclivities in STEM areas, it increases alienation from school and encourages drop-outs. Although only 18% of United States kids are interested in a STEM career, that is far more than enough as “the United States’ education system produces a supply of qualified [science and engineering] graduates in much greater numbers than the jobs available.”

More importantly, the myopic concentration on higher, harder STEM skills for all students distracts us from the purposes of education and overshadows the true skills for the 21st century. These include things like communications, responsibility, teamwork, evaluating information, listening, negotiating and creativity. So the real concern may not be training and testing enough high school students in STEM. It may be why did we forget the broader purposes of education in a democratic society?


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