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White House announces $250M effort for science and math teachers

By Nick Anderson
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 4:33 PM

President Obama announced a $250 million public-private effort Wednesday to improve science and mathematics instruction, aiming to help the nation compete in key fields with global economic rivals.

With funding from high-tech businesses, universities and foundations, the initiative seeks to prepare more than 10,000 new math and science schoolteachers over five years and provide on-the-job training for an additional 100,000 in science, technology, engineering and math.

"Passionate educators with deep content expertise can make all the difference," Obama said in a prepared statement, "enabling hands-on learning that truly engages students -- including girls and underrepresented minorities--and preparing them to tackle the 'grand challenges' of the 21st century such as increasing energy independence, improving people's health, protecting the environment and strengthening national security."

Obama announced the initiative in an afternoon ceremony at the White House as he honored -- and jested with -- about 100 outstanding math and science educators from around the country. "I've got two girls upstairs with math tests coming up," he said, referring to his daughters, Sasha and Malia. "I figure that a little extra help from the best of the best couldn't hurt. So you're going to have assignments after this. These awards were not free."

The initiative effectively doubles, to more than $500 million, a philanthropic campaign for so-called STEM education that Obama launched in November. Separately, the government spends about $700 million a year on elementary and secondary education in the STEM fields through agencies such as NASA, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Education Department. But it's unclear how much federal spending can grow in a time of rising budget deficits.

"There is a recognition we can't do everything," said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "We really need all hands on deck from the private sector and the philanthropic sector because the government can't foot the whole bill for this."

Business and government leaders have sounded alarms over science and math education in recent years as concern has mounted that the United States may be losing the technological edge that fueled its economy in the 20th century. The nation's universities are still known as world leaders, but the performance of its K-12 schools has come under scrutiny. International math testing in 2007 found that U.S. fourth-graders trailed counterparts in some areas of Europe and Asia and that U.S. eighth-graders lagged behind those from a handful of Asian powers. Similar results were found in science.

To address the issue, Obama has sought to make science and math education a national cause. The $4 billion Race to the Top federal grant competition for education reform funding gives states bonus points for proposals that stress STEM instruction. Wednesday's announcement, described by administration officials and executives from businesses and foundations, shows a mobilization on several fronts.

Intel Corp., based in Santa Clara, Calif., and the Intel Foundation are committing $200 million in cash and in-kind support over 10 years for expanded teacher training and other measures. For instance, the company will offer nationwide an intensive 80-hour math course to help U.S. elementary school teachers, who are usually generalists, develop expertise. About 1,200 teachers from California, Arizona, Massachusetts and New Jersey have taken the course since 2007.

"There's a lot of research that says if the teacher has that content knowledge, they can spark excitement," said Shelly Esque, Intel vice president for corporate affairs.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Princeton, N.J., will expand a program that places math and science teachers with advanced degrees in hard-to-staff schools in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. With $40 million in foundation and state funding, the program will train 700 teachers over three years, many of them in Michigan, which has been pummeled in the economic downturn.

"We're really trying to be part of turning around the state, closing the achievement gap and having more kids go on to college," said Sterling K. Speirn, president and chief executive of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in Battle Creek, Mich., which is aiding the effort.

Other elements of the initiative include a $13.5 million expansion of a university-based program called UTeach that aims to deliver 7,000 expert teachers by 2018; a commitment from public universities to prepare 10,000 math and science teachers a year, up from 7,500 annually; and efforts by NASA and PBS to promote effective math and science teaching.

"If we're going to be economically competitive and continue to innovate and create jobs, we have to get much, much better in STEM education," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "There's a huge sense of urgency."

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