William Mathis, Vermont Digger - Maybe it's time we turned the shortage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math 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.
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.
The STEM 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
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?