The View From Washington State: 3 Ways to Improve STEM Education In Our State

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a monthly series from Microsoft called “The View from Washington State”. The View from Washington State provides insight and commentary on topics and trends of importance to technology, education, corporate citizenship and public policy in Washington State.

Posted by Brad Smith
General Counsel & Executive Vice President, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Microsoft

Several months ago, in the other Washington, I had the opportunity to discuss the country’s need for new ideas to address the current shortage of engineers and computer scientists.  Among other things, I called for coupling an increase in H1B visas and green cards with higher fees to obtain those credentials for their employees. These fees would provide billions of dollars over the next decade to invest in improving K-12 and higher education here in the U.S., to ensure that American students in U.S. schools are better prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

The idea is gaining bipartisan support in our nation’s capital and its adoption would provide short- and long-term benefits.

It would immediately help employers like Microsoft hire the people it needs today. We currently have more than 6,000 open job opportunities, more than half of which are for computer scientists and engineers. Giving employers who are finding it increasingly hard to fill the jobs they create access to more talent, will provide an immediate shot in the arm to the national economy. Put simply, if Felix Hernandez is available, you want to be able to sign him for your team.

Over the longer term, the resulting investments in STEM education will help ensure that more of our nation’s young people fully benefit from the exciting career opportunities being created by the innovation economy.

But at the same time, we here in Washington state must commit ourselves to implementing equally important efforts to address this skills shortage.

Our educational institutions in the Evergreen State have not been able to keep pace with changes in our economy over the past quarter-century. Studies like this one from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation show that Washington is among the top five states in the nation in per-capita creation of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree, but among the bottom states in terms of awarding those degrees.

This unhealthy mismatch can’t continue without seriously constraining our economic health and the job opportunities available to the young people of our state. Closing this gap will require strategic action in Olympia.

First, we must improve STEM education in K-12.  That requires maintaining our commitment to fully implement Common Core Standards and adopting the Next Generation Science Standards being developed.

We also must commit ourselves to becoming a national leader at making Computer Science available to all high school students. There are currently more than 770 public and private high schools in Washington, and only 35 of them offer the AP course in computer science. And the scarcity of these courses is having a greater impact on students of color. Of the 542 Washington students who took the AP computer science exam last year, fewer than 25 were Hispanic, African-American or Native-American.

One step in the right direction would be to make computer science count toward a high school graduation requirement in math or science. Only nine states do that today, and Washington isn’t one of them. When it comes to graduation requirements in our state, computer science is considered an elective on par with woodworking – hardly the way a skill that has become foundational in our culture should be addressed in our schools.

Next, we must work to improve two critical Cs of higher education:  capacity and completion. Only one in three freshmen who complete their prerequisites for entry into the University of Washington’s computer science engineering program will, in fact, major in computer science. There’s simply no room for the other two-thirds.

We also must find creative ways to help college students, especially those who have children or are working part-or full-time, complete their degrees. The reality is that 75 percent of the students going to college today fit into the non-traditional student category. The fact that many college students graduate with large debt loads is a challenge; the fact that many others drop out with large debt loads is a tragedy.

There will be no lack of interest in education during the 2013 legislature. The State Supreme Court’s decision in the McCleary educational funding case has rightly shined a spotlight on the state’s constitutional obligation to fully fund public schools. Lawmakers from both parties will offer ideas for increasing the resources devoted to K-12 education.

But we can’t allow the entire conversation to be about dollars; how much we spend is important but how we spend it is equally important. We must make strategic investments that improve instruction and learning. And we can’t allow the conversation to be confined to the K-12 sector. Instead, we must work to create a seamless system from pre-kindergarten through graduate school that will help Washington students develop the skills they need for the 21st century.

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