Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

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Good Morning. Thank you for inviting me here today. It is an honor to sit here in this room with our nation's leading scientists and engineers. You're the experts in your field, the people the president trusts to build an agenda for science and technology and to advise him, me, and my colleagues in the Cabinet.

I have been talking to and listening to many of your colleagues about issues and policies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education – the STEM fields. I have spoken often with the President about our nation's school children and the pressing needs we have to be competitive in the global economy.

I've been on a Listening and Learning tour that has taken me to more than 30 states and scores of schools. I've also been talking to principals, teachers, parents, and students themselves.

I heard their voices—their expectations, hopes and dreams for themselves and their kids. They were candid about their fears and frustrations. They did not always understand why some schools struggle while others thrive. They understood profoundly that great teaching and school leadership is the key to a great education for their children.

We continually see evidence that our children aren't getting that great education. Last summer, we released a special supplement to this year's Condition of Education comparing kids in the U.S. to students around the world. This analysis looked at information gathered from recent international studies that U.S. students have participated in.

  • The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Some of the results are disturbing. Compared to their peers in other countries, our students are stagnating. In science, our eighth graders are behind their peers in eight countries that also participated in the original international assessment. In math, although scores have improved somewhat since 1995, our 15 year-olds' scores now lag behind those of 31 countries. Four countries—Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland—outperform U.S. students on math, science and all other subjects.

And just last week, the math NAEP scores were released, and did not show the progress in math skills our students need. The 4th grade scores were flat. Although the 8th grade scores increased, they aren't improving fast enough. It's also troubling that we're not making progress on closing the achievement gap.

These results tell us that we need to both increase our performance in science but become much more focused on using science to make dramatic improvements in the ways we engage and educate students. We can learn from cognitive science, brain development and motivation theory so we can engage the many different kinds of learners.

As the (Carnegie-IAS) Opportunity Equation report stated, we must transform education in the United States so that every student reaches higher levels of mathematics and science learning. Increasing our national performance means raising the bar and closing the gap for all students –poor, black, and Latino students – who need to not only reach proficiency but also do advanced work.

We know our students must get dramatically better if we're going to compete in the international economy.

With your assistance, we can start to find answers and explore ideas about how to engage the entire population around STEM subjects.

To move this work forward we need to build new curricula and use extended time to make science more interesting and relevant.

We must begin to create a national STEM innovation agenda and network to develop and share effective practices.

We must find new and better ways to help students master STEM inside and outside the classroom. We can start by building on the emerging common math standards, and go from there.

We need school students to think about recycling or the use of wind power so we can help lay the groundwork to make America a leading exporter of clean energy.

We must encourage more state stem efforts to build the capacity in schools and in districts by linking universities and private industry with the millions of scientists who could support the STEM work and interests of teachers and students.

We need all of our citizens to think about ways to increase fuel economy standards for cars and trucks so they will get better mileage and reduce the nation's dependency on fossil fuels.

We need to foster future STEM leaders and innovators so their work can help spur advancements in health and medicine, the environment, space exploration, food production for third-world countries, and revitalize the American economy.

And we need teachers who have the deep content knowledge of the STEM fields and the passion for teaching our children to prepare them to be the next generation of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and leaders for technological innovation.

If all of you would go back to your schools and institutions and make this quest for change, if you would spread the word to every student and colleague and scientist that you know, that we need to improve the pipeline for developing STEM professionals, this idea could move like a virus that would infect our nation's young people.

In 2007, then-Senator Obama called for initiatives that would increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the professions of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"To restore America's competitiveness, he said, "we must recruit a new generation of science and technology leaders by investing in diversity."

Most of our scientists and most of our STEM teachers are being recruited from a narrow segment of our population. We must find a way to include the people who represent the sum of our nation's population. If we can tap into the diversity of America, we can bring fresh ideas and perspectives and perhaps new inventions to our world.

Today, only 23 % of college freshman declare a STEM major. That is 15% of the total student population of 3.6 million (college and non-college).

But just 40 % of those that elect STEM majors freshman year receive a STEM degree within 6 years. (about 6% of the total 3.6 million student population).

We can't make progress if these students are leaving the STEM fields.

Your group (PCAST) could be helpful in looking at and finding solutions to this flow of students from interested to uninterested. Understanding this pattern could have implications for reforming not only the diversity of science leaders but also for reforming the teaching of science and technology at the college level.

Federal Role

Our Administration is committed to raising standards, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use and understanding of science and technology in our classrooms.

We are calling on states to enhance teacher preparation and training, and to attract new and qualified math and science teachers to better engage students and reinvigorate those subjects in our schools.

We support initiatives to pay more to teachers in high-need subjects like science and math, and rewarding excellence by paying teachers and principals who do a great job in the classroom.

The Department's $4.35 billion Race to the Top is helping.

It calls for states to do things differently because we cannot accept the status quo.

Through the Recovery Act and the Race to the Top, states are redefining the four areas of educational reform that will help propel us there:

  • putting the best teachers in schools where they're most needed
  • closing down chronically underperforming schools and creating better ones,
  • creating data systems that track students from the cradle to college and link student results back to teachers, and
  • focusing on world-class standards to help states build their reforms.

States that are creating optimal conditions for education innovation and reform will take the lead, so that students in these states have an advantage.

Under Race to the Top, we have proposed giving a competitive preference to applications that place added emphasis on STEM— those that will offer rigorous courses, partner with industry experts, museums, universities, and research centers, and those that prepare more students for advanced study in STEM fields, including addressing the needs of underrepresented groups and of women and girls.

In addition to Race to the Top, we have $650 million for the Investing in Innovation program. We're looking for all sorts of ideas:

  • Small grants (about $5 million) to support new ideas worth trying;
  • Medium (about $30 million) size grants to help grow projects that are showing results;
  • Big grants (about $50 million) so that proven programs expand to national scale.

We are encouraging projects and proposals that will find innovative STEM solutions.

We know we have pockets of innovation and excellence, but what we need are systems that will advance reforms nationwide.


I want to reiterate the one issue that is huge – teachers. We know that talent matters tremendously in classrooms and in school leadership. We need more teachers in the STEM subjects. And we need them to be great teachers. They're the ones who turn standards into compelling experiments and experiences in the classroom. They use data to inform and improve what they do. In low-performing schools, teachers do the day-in and day-out work of raising expectations and ensuring that students meet them.

It's not enough that STEM graduates envision only becoming physicists, chemists, or engineers. We must bring more of them – especially more of the best of them – into our classrooms as teachers. We need your help to promote teaching as a noble and valued profession and one that can advance the science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. What are the models that work to make sure that science and math teachers have a deep understanding of their subject?

The good news is that many people are beginning to try new ways to attract and retain teachers.

  • Signing bonuses
  • Performance pay
  • Incentives to teach in our most challenging schools
  • Bonuses for raising student achievement.

These are all good strategies – and all worth attempting, so that we learn from the successes, or failures, of these attempts.

Remember. Your colleagues who became teachers have not failed as scientists – they are doing the important work of preparing the next generation of scientists. They are like the parents of young children —planting the first seeds that could germinate a whole new hybrid – a generation of STEM leaders that will help move our economy forward.

It is time that we engage everyone in the scientific community to help move the nation forward. The right STEM strategies have the potential to have an enormous impact.

We have seen it happen before. From turning on the light bulb to landing on the moon or searching on Google, America has been the leader in innovation.

Our young people and our country are up to the challenge. Something must be done – and you as leaders can help us enormously to reach and implement our goals.

Thank you. It will be great to have a discussion now about your ideas.