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Arne Duncan, Among the Scientists


This morning I attended the second day of a National Science Board panel discussion, which focused on how U.S. schools can do more to cultivate the students who can morph into innovators or super-innovators—basically, the Albert Einsteins, Robert Noyces, and Frank Lloyd Wrights of tomorrow. (Maybe you've got your own innovators list.) Board members were joined by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who plugged some of the administration's efforts in math and science and hinted at another one coming down the road.


The secretary, who provided opening remarks and fielded questions, didn't break a lot of new ground, again making his case for how $4 billion in federal "Race to the Top" funds will help struggling schools and improve how schools use data.

He also stressed the potential for the money to help states and schools recruit new teachers in math and science. Today, too many students are taught by educators who don't know the content in those subjects, the secretary noted. He made another pitch for differential pay for math and science teachers, as well as for teachers in other high-need subjects, possibly spec-ed and foreign languages. He also mentioned the importance of increasing access to AP programs, and singled out a teacher-training program, the University of Texas' "UTeach," for helping produce the "next generation of great leadership" in schools. Interestingly, those remarks came on the same day that the Dallas-based organization that's seeking to replicate the UTeach model and expand AP access said that its participating schools have seen a major increase in AP passing scores.

Duncan also previewed what he said will be a "national campaign" this fall to sell the teaching profession to young people. That effort will be a "call to service," the secretary said, which will target 18-19 year olds, and possibly career-changers. As my colleague Steve Sawchuk noted recently, the dismal job market has made it difficult for some of the most determined future teachers in math and science to find work.

Overall, American schools need to churn out students with better math and science skills, said Duncan, who, as he has previously, cited mediocre U.S. scores on international tests as a source of worry.

"We've become complacent," he told the audience. "We've sort of lost our way. This is huge challenge for us."

UPDATE: On a related note, Duncan’s agency today announced the awarding of $6.3 million in grants to 32 colleges and universities to support efforts to encourage more students to stick with STEM. Some of the grants will be made under the department’s Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, which provides support to undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue advanced degrees. Other money will flow through the Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program, which supports a range of K-12 and college activity, including student tutoring, curriculum development, and renovations of labs.


I attended some of this meeting and was struck by several observations. The discussion was long on higher education faculty and researchers but slim on people with recent and deep experience in schools. Perhaps that is what the NSB is, but if one is addressing a topic like promoting innovation n K-12 STEM education, you'd think there would be at least a significant minority of K-12 people invited. Also, the topic of 'translating' scientific research into classroom application was discussed with most wondering why this did not happen more often or faster. Finally, with a focus on innovation, I was hoping for some discussion of cutting edge science education offerings like biotechnology.

Whenever you have Arne Duncan invloved, it is to be expected that relevant/practical/knowledgeable dialogue on public educaction will be absent.

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