U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Friday that the nation needs a national policy to boost science education, especially in promoting the best ways to teach science, engineering, and math.

Duncan called for a national science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education agenda and network to develop and share effective practices, as well as reiterated a call for better trained teachers and incentive pay for science and math teachers (see here). He spoke to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

However, despite poor science programs in high school, according to a new report released today, interest in science among American high school and college students hasn’t slackened over the past 30 years (see here). According to the Rutgers University report, U.S. colleges and universities are graduating as many scientists and engineers as ever, contradicting long-held hand-wringing from educators and employers.

The study, "Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline," was conducted with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

While the data seem to skirt the issue of whether “enough” scientists are being graduated, it does indicate many of the highest performing students are choosing careers in other fields after graduation.

That could eventually hurt since, in his speech, Duncan ladled a lot onto the plates of America’s young people, saying they will need to spur future advancements in clean energy, health and medicine, the environment, space exploration, food production for developing countries, and for revitalizing the American economy. How much of that gets done and how well it gets done will depend on education and specifically on math and science majors.

“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,” Duncan said in his speech. “We know our students must get dramatically better if we’re going to compete in the international economy.”

Just as important as a scientifically trained workforce, Duncan said America needs a scientifically literate public able to comprehend the technological issues that will transform their lives and their environment in the coming decades.

He bemoaned lagging math improvement of students taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (see here and the article above).

“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,” Duncan said.

He called for states to enhance teacher preparation, training and pay, and to attract new and qualified math and science teachers to engage students and reinvigorate those subjects in American 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,” he said.

Duncan said only 23 percent of college freshman declare a STEM major. And just 40 percent of those that elect STEM majors as first-year students receive a STEM degree within six years.

Part of the solution is encouraging minority students and women to enter the sciences. “Most of our scientists and most of our STEM teachers are being recruited from a narrow segment of our population, Duncan said. “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.”

Duncan complained about time spent on science being reduced in too many classrooms because of No Child Left Behind requirements. That complaint was echoed in later comments to the President’s council by a representative of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

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