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Originally published Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 4:09 PM

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Guest: Washington state lags rest of U.S. on STEM education

You might think that given Washington’s wealth of STEM employers, we would be doing better than the rest of the country — but you’d be wrong, writes guest columnist Robin Lake.


Special to The Times

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WASHINGTON state Gov. Jay Inslee has emphasized the importance of improving education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and rightly so. STEM jobs are where future economic growth lies — 70 percent of all new jobs in this coming decade are predicted to be in computer-related occupations — yet our students are woefully unprepared to be hired to do those jobs.

You might think that given Washington’s wealth of STEM employers, we would be doing better than the rest of the country — but you’d be wrong.

We’re among the lowest in how much time our K-12 schools devote to science instruction. We are nearly last in the country when it comes to degree production in science and engineering, a report by nonprofit Washington STEM showed.

According to recent research out of Georgia Tech, in 2013 half as many students in the state that’s home to Microsoft and Amazon.com took the Advanced Placement computer science exam as did students in Maryland. Only one-quarter of Washington’s test-takers were girls; even fewer were black or Hispanic.

There is work under way to do better. There are many STEM-focused schools popping up, such as Cleveland High School in Seattle, which specializes in life sciences and engineering, and the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, where interdisciplinary courses emphasize math and science. The nonprofit Washington STEM provides grants and other support to seed such initiatives throughout the state. But these efforts are not nearly enough to make sure our kids will be competitive for high-paying jobs in STEM fields when they graduate.

The truth is, Washington state has no STEM goals or plan. As a result, our kids are not being prepared to compete for jobs at the hundreds of local companies that are driving the new economy.

If the state is to really move forward, we need to move beyond small-scale experiments to systemic reforms.

For starters, a statewide competition for innovative approaches to teaching STEM skills would spark progress. A small pot of funding for a statewide STEM challenge could pay for scalable and inexpensive teaching units or online programs such as code.org and computer games that teach kids math and science. The Legislature could create a grant competition for high-poverty or rural schools or districts with the best ideas for increasing the number of girls in AP STEM courses.

Although we have some schools experimenting with different approaches to STEM, we have no way to track which ones are more effective and to replicate them. If all of the state’s STEM schools agreed to share their approaches and participate in rigorous experiments to assess their impact, Washington would lead the country in knowledge about STEM education.

To ensure our state has the best math and science teachers in the country, school districts should be permitted — and encouraged — to pay STEM teachers more than other teachers. Great STEM teachers require more specialized training than other teachers, and their skills are in high demand. But Gov. Inslee’s new budget recommendations would preclude this approach by locking court-ordered funding for K-12 schools into across-the-board cost-of-living raises for teachers instead.

Bolstering STEM at the K-12 level does no good if there are no seats for these students in public colleges. No wonder high-school students don’t pursue computer science when university departments only take a small portion of those who apply. State-funded colleges and universities should be required to double their enrollments in STEM courses and find more cost-effective ways to educate students. UW Bothell has shown what is possible by rapidly increasing its STEM graduates and coursework.

Every parent should be concerned that our graduates don’t excel in STEM skills. What’s more, they should push for action. Talking about the importance of STEM means nothing if we fail to compete for great STEM teachers, if we ignore evidence about what works, if we refuse to reallocate resources, and if we fail to promote innovative ideas.

Washington is a leader in medical research, computer technology and aerospace. Now it needs to lead in making sure our children are prepared for the great jobs in their own backyard.

Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center affiliated with the University of Washington.



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