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“Letter on STEM Education” Urges Parents to Demand Better Science Classes

With China training more English-speaking engineers than the United States and American school children continuing to lag behind their international peers in math and science, it is time for parents to demand that schools do better by their children, a blue-ribbon committee says.

While the world has changed, “the overwhelming majority of American public schools have not,” says the committee organized by the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress (CSPC). “The knowledge and skills a highly competitive world requires are not being provided to your children, and their opportunity to thrive is at risk. It is time for you to take charge.”

The panel’s report, “A Letter on STEM Education to America’s Parents,” was released at a discussion hosted by AAAS on 6 December. Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS Education and Human Resources, moderated the discussion with committee co-chairs Bill Brock, former chairman of the Republican National Committee Chairman; Roy Romer, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Norman Augustine, former CEO and chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp.

Malcom also served as a member of the nonpartisan study committee, which included former members of Congress and leading figures in the business, education, and scientific communities.

Shirley Malcom

“We focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, not because other fields are unimportant,” the letter to parents notes, “but rather because excellence in STEM will to a large degree form the basis of our children’s ability to obtain jobs; to defend themselves in a dangerous world; and to live healthy, happy, rewarding lives.”

While general unemployment rose to 10% during the financial crisis, unemployment in STEM fields peaked at 5.5%, the letter says. Workers in those fields earn 26% more, on average, than their counterparts in non-technical fields. Failure to have at least a working understanding of science, technology, engineering and math “has become a one-way ticket to being left behind,” the letter says.

Norman Augustine, co-chair of the CSPC’s Committee on K-12 Education, said there has been much effort over the years to awaken Congress, state governments, and the nation as a whole to the importance of STEM education. The success has been only moderate, he said.

“We’ve decided to take a different approach,” Augustine said. “We are going straight to the people who can have the biggest difference, and that’s the parents.” The letter is intended “to tell them just what a difficult situation their child is going to face” in the coming years without a quality education. With Americans having to compete on a global basis, Augustine said, “the importance of STEM can hardly be overemphasized.”

Various studies suggest that between 50% and 85% of America’s growth in GDP (gross domestic product) is attributable to advances in science and technology, Augustine said, although only about 5% of the workforce is engaged in those pursuits. “That 5% disproportionately creates jobs for others,” he said.

Citing numbers from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (2011), the letter notes that only 40% of U.S. 4th graders and 35% of 8th graders performed in mathematics at or above the “proficient” level. In the science assessment, only 32% of eighth-grade students performed at or above the proficient level.

Norman Augustine

Only about 15% of U.S. high-school graduates have enough math and science to even begin pursuing an engineering degree, Augustine noted, and among those who do begin, more than half drop out.

Why is a center that focuses on presidential and congressional leadership issuing a report on educational policy? The letter notes that some of the most striking leadership lessons can be drawn from times when U.S. presidents chose to make strategic investments in science and education, even during times of great duress.

Abraham Lincoln established the Land Grant Colleges and created the National Academy of Sciences during the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt created the G.I. Bill and mobilized science to help win World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the office of the White House Science Advisor during the Cold War.

Despite many reports over the years on the decline in math and science skills in American students, educators and policymakers have struggled to solve the problems. In some cases, the letter notes, states lower educational testing standards “in order to obscure the poor absolute performance of their students.” It cited a report which found that 15 of 37 states examined had set the bar for proficiency in math and science below the recommendations for basic competency set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Bill Brock, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, said states that lower standards to improve the perceived performance of students “are committing an act of fraud.”

Brock and Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado, both stressed the need for rigorous common standards in math and science, with states rather than the federal government taking the lead in pushing for the standards and curricula aligned to them. Romer noted that 45 states have adopted common core standards for math and language arts, and efforts are underway to develop common standards for science.

Bill Brock

Still, despite such positive developments, Brock and Romer said parents must get involved if the educational system is to truly change.

“If we can get the American parent involved, I am convinced that they can change the world,” said Brock..

Romer said parents can play a powerful role not only in pressing for educational reforms, but also in setting expectations for their children.

“I think it’s sort of symbolic that a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee are sitting up here saying we’ve got a problem,” Brock said. Malcom, too, noted the composition of the study committee.

Roy Romer

“This is not a partisan issue,” she said. “This goes across the board. It cuts to the heart of what we are about.”

The letter suggests 10 steps parents can take to improve the education of their children, including insisting that strenuous testing standards not be watered down and that public school systems encourage competition through financial and other rewards for extraordinary teachers.

Another of the recommendations: “Don’t leave your child’s education up to the ‘establishment.’ Read with your children, turn off the TV and video games, and support extracurricular activities that focus on experiential education.” [See the complete list of recommendations in the box below.]

“It is not our international competitors that run the schools that educate our children,” the letter concludes. “We do. The only issue at this point is how much we care…and what we are willing to do about it.”


Read “A Letter on STEM Education to America’s Parents”

Read 10 suggestions for parents from the “Letter on STEM Education”

Learn more about the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress
Suggestions for Parents from the Letter on STEM Education

  1. Forty-six states have agreed to a Common-Core Curriculum in at least some subjects. Demand that your state’s leaders fully adopt that curriculum or a more rigorous one and expand it into other academic disciplines.
  2. Use PTA and Board of Education meetings to insist that strenuous testing standards accompanying the Common-Core Curriculum be adopted and that they are not watered down. Illusions of progress lead to parental complacency and political lethargy.
  3. Support the introduction of competition into our public school system through financial and other rewards for extraordinary teachers and through new and more effective ways of recognizing and replicating the best among our public schools, including public charter schools.
  4. Insist that standards for new teachers are raised, that teachers meeting these standards are compensated as professionals, and that they are given the freedom to teach.
  5. Write your Congressmen and Senators and tell them to implement the remainder of the National Academies’ “Gathering Storm” recommendations.
  6. Demand that your school district lengthen the number of high-quality hours children spend in the classroom with their teachers. Time is important, but the quality of that time is even more so.
  7. Don’t leave your child’s education up to the “establishment.” Read with your children, turn off the TV and video games, and support extracurricular activities that focus on experiential education.
  8. Discuss with your children the important connection between education and training and their lifelong standard of living. Help them to understand that hard work in the classroom and involvement in afterschool STEM programs will pay off in terms of greater career opportunities and higher pay.
  9. Cut your political leaders no more slack. Demand action. Demand higher standards. Defeat those who make only hollow promises and excuses. Accept only tangible, demonstrable progress, quantified by actual results measured against the baseline of the best systems in the world.
  10. Most of all, demand that every system, every program, local or state, and every educator put our children first, not the adults—the students.