Calculus does not have to be made easy—it is easy already. That banner used to grace the Los Angeles classroom of someone once called the best teacher in America. Jaime Escalante, the unconventional calculus teacher who was depicted by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, died last year of cancer at the age of 79. The year before the film, more students from Garfield High School took the AP calculus exam than at all but three other public schools in the country, with two thirds passing.
Half a year after his death the Obama administration weighed in on the state of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in this country. The report, “Prepare and Inspire,” reviewed the sobering statistics about how our K–12 schools suffer by comparison to their counterparts in other developed nations. It called for recruiting and training 100,000 STEM teachers. President Barack Obama mentioned STEM as a priority in his State of the Union address this year, and advocates for science education have been pressing to get student science performance incorporated into the No Child Left Behind law.
But achieving these goals is not going to be easy. The report noted that 25,000 STEM teachers leave the workforce every year, mostly because of disgruntlement with their jobs and lack of professional support. To attract and retain enough science and math teachers will require an elevation in their status and a thorough revamping of attitudes toward the entire profession.
Escalante’s career illustrates why. From a job mopping floors after he arrived in the 1960s from his native Bolivia, Escalante procured much better paying work as a technician at an electronics company. From there he went on to get a teaching credential to pursue a passion that dated back to his early years in Bolivia. In 1974, at the age of 43, Escalante decided to take a lower salary as a math teacher at Garfield. He made academic successes of many of his poor Hispanic charges, but first, he had to overcome the system’s built-in inertia. Garfield initially assigned him to teach what would have been the equivalent of fifth-grade math in Bolivia, and he had to convince school administrators that students there were capable of learning math at a higher level.
Few teachers are willing to run a similar professional gauntlet—nor should they. The onus to improve schools should be on federal, state and local educational strategists. The first step should be to tap the strengths of the existing teaching pool. We must identify today’s Escalantes—the top 5 percent of the nation’s STEM teachers—and, as recommended in the administration report, induct them into a STEM master teachers corps that would receive salary supplements and federal funding to support their activities.
Second, we need to give all teachers the tools they need. Escalante brought toys to class: a plastic monkey climbing up and down a pole illustrated the inverse function. Teachers shouldn’t have to rely on homemade props. We should form the equivalent of an Advanced Research Projects Agency to help develop educational technologies, including “deeply digital” instructional materials that encourage active participation. At the same time, we should recognize that new technology isn’t a solution in itself and shouldn’t come at the expense of other needs. Many schools get grants and donations for the latest computers and software yet can’t buy books for their libraries or beakers for their science labs.
Finally, we should shift our emphasis from standards to implementation. Developing new standards does have a role, but the problem for most schools is not a lack of good curriculum options. It is the difficulty of putting them into practice, given the day-to-day pressures that teachers are under. If anything, new standards and tests often get in the way by forcing educators to teach to the test, rather than encouraging critical thinking.
To meet all the goals set by the White House report would require an extra $1 billion each year. Against the nearly $600 billion spent annually for public education, it is not a huge sum. Still, with local districts faced with declining tax revenues and unfunded mandates, some of the money will have to come from the federal government.
That goes against the grain during a time when teachers’ salaries and benefits are being cut. Yet the costs of doing nothing are a matter of simple calculus. If we do not improve STEM education, the U.S. will continue a decades-long slide from the middle of the pack in student achievement toward the very bottom.