Math and Science Drive America’s Future

“Our success as a nation depends on strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of discovery and innovation.”

President Barack Obama made this compelling and powerful statement earlier this year at a White House event to rally support for education, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. He knows that more than 80 percent of the jobs in the near future will require more skills in math and science. These subjects are the new foundational literacy for our nation. That means we must do a better job of preparing American students in these areas---or they will get left behind in tomorrow’s global economy.

This is even more critical for minority youth, who already struggle with unequal opportunities. According to a report by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, the number of minority children grew by 4.8 million between 2000 and 2008, and Hispanics accounted for more than 80 percent of the increase. Hispanics are the largest and fastest growing minority in our country---responsible for more than half the growth of the U.S. population in the last ten years. As a result, it is essential that our public education system move swiftly to provide Hispanic students with the skills they need to be college-ready and move into higher-paying careers.

This is a daunting goal: the college graduation rate of U.S. students overall has dropped from first down to 12th place when compared to the rest of the world. For minority students, there are even greater challenges: a 2010 study of national college graduation data by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) reveals that many four-year colleges and universities graduate less than half of their Hispanic students. The time for change in our schools is now, and the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) is serving as that agent of change. NMSI was established three years ago under the leadership of ExxonMobil and others in business and education to open the doors to success much wider in America, particularly for traditionally underrepresented students. NMSI’s goal is to get more American students college-ready, by dramatically increasing their success in Advanced Placement math, science and English classes in high school.

Why is this important? Passing AP exam scores are generally accepted for course credit by the nation’s colleges and universities, which see success in AP courses as a reliable indicator of students’ capacity for college-level thinking. More important, students who pass an AP exam in high school graduate from college at much higher rates than students who did not take an AP exam. This is particularly true for minority students: Hispanic students who passed an AP exam had a college graduation rate of 62 percent, as compared to 15 percent for those students who did not.

NMSI is helping prepare more students for success in college through its Advanced Placement Training and Initiative Program (APTIP), which is being implemented this year in 229 high schools across six states in the U.S. In just the first two years of the program, the APTIP combination of training for teachers, mentoring for students, and financial incentives for students and teachers is producing remarkable results, particularly among minorities.

Consider that, in schools that have implemented APTIP, the number of AP math, science and English exams passed by participating students has increased by 98 percent – compared to 14 percent nationally. The number of AP math and science exams passed by minority students has increased by 155 percent – compared to 28 percent nationally. And the number of AP math and science exams passed by female students has increased by 116 percent – compared to 9 percent nationally

The results just among Hispanic students are even more impressive. The number of AP math, science and English exams passed by Hispanic students has increased by 162 percent – compared to 28 percent nationally; and the number of AP math and science exams passed by female Hispanic students has increased by 184 percent – compared to 21 percent nationally

The increase in student achievement, along with dramatic enrollment increases in rigorous, college-level coursework, is cause for optimism, but there is still much to be done. STEM education needs to be a nationally-endorsed priority for both the public and private sectors. NMSI has already achieved substantial success in large part due to significant funding from founding sponsor, ExxonMobil, as well as from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Texas Instruments Foundation, Carnegie Corporation and Lockheed Martin Corporation. All of these supporters have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to safeguarding the future of our country by investing in education – particularly in the critical STEM fields. They understand that our country faces an avalanche of tough issues –unemployment, healthcare, energy, national security – that can only be solved with new, out-of-the-box thinking that comes from a robust, highly skilled and diverse workforce.

Momentum is building. NMSI is determined to continue improving math and science education, particularly for under-represented students, because those fields are sure to provide the spark that will ignite innovation and move our country forward again.

Tom Luce is the CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.