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problems with STEM education
In this file photo, a high school student at a Mississippi school works on a math assignment. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

One of the biggest education priorities of recent years has been readying more young people for the job-friendly fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In 2006, President Bush announced the “American Competitiveness Initiative” to strengthen science-and-tech education in the name of advancing innovation. Three years later, President Obama unveiled a program to train 100,000 new STEM teachers and attract more girls and minorities to the fields. Getting kids into STEM has been embraced by interests as varied as Microsoft, the Girl Scouts and David Koch.

But many Americans still harbor concerns about the quality of STEM education in the U.S. and see it as “middling” compared with that of other advanced nations, according to a new poll released today by the Pew Research Center. Of the nearly 5,000 people surveyed last summer, most said they thought K-12 public schools do a good job teaching basic reading, writing and math (61 percent) and preparing students for college (59 percent). But only one quarter of Americans (25 percent) said they thought K-12 STEM education was the best in the world or above average compared with other advanced countries. Just 13 percent of those with a postgraduate degree in STEM rated K-12 STEM education as above average.

Those surveyed found fault with many aspects of STEM education. “People saw problems stemming from parents, problems stemming from students, as well as problems stemming from teaching style,” said Cary Funk, director of science and society research at Pew and the study’s lead author.

More than half of those surveyed said STEM teachers spent too much time meeting state standards (55 percent) and too little emphasizing practical applications (53 percent). Fifty-nine percent said students weren’t willing to work hard to excel in STEM and 61 percent said parents weren’t sufficiently involved in supporting schools.

Related: Pathways to jobs of the future opening view summer STEM programs

STEM jobs are among the fastest-growing middle- and upper-income occupations in America.

Pew found that employment in STEM fields has grown by 79 percent since 1990, compared with 34 percent for all occupations. Employment in computer occupations exploded over that period, by 338 percent.

The Pew study suggests that many Americans are convinced of the value of STEM training as a way to advance out of poverty. Most of those polled said they believed STEM jobs offered higher pay (71 percent), attracted smarter and better qualified people (58 percent) and were more well-respected (53 percent) than positions in other industries.

But barriers to entry are relatively high. Sixty-five percent of STEM workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 33 percent of employees in other occupations, according to the study.

And despite the national focus on recruiting more women and people of color to STEM professions, the fields remain a relatively inhospitable place for these workers, the study suggests. Women’s representation in computer jobs has actually declined since 1990, Pew said. Blacks and Hispanics continue to be underrepresented in STEM occupations, making up 9 percent and 7 percent of STEM workers, respectively.

Half of women in STEM jobs surveyed said they’d experienced gender discrimination at least once in the workplace, compared with 19 percent of men. Sixty-two percent of blacks, 44 percent of Asians, 42 percent of Hispanics and 13 percent of whites in STEM jobs said they’d experience workplace discrimination due to their race or ethnicity.

The study “puts some hard numbers” to the national discussion about workplace harassment and diversity, said Funk, “so that people have a better sense of how to move forward.”

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