Last night a group of us completed four days of interviews for teaching positions at the Cannon River STEM School. We interviewed some wonderful candidates, from experienced teachers to teachers just completing their student teacher experience and preparing to graduate in May. The ones who impressed me the most were those who were passionate, excited, articulate, smart, caring, and who showed clear evidence that they were taking the theory and concepts taught in teacher training programs and learning how to put those things into practice in the classroom. The best candidates were reflective practitioners.
Our candidates were excited, as I am, about the small class-sizes Cannon River STEM School will offer, and about the idea of an integrated curriculum focused on project-based learning that gets students into the outdoors. They were excited, as I am, about a school founded on academic rigor, a sense of community, and a sense of the joy of shared discovery. They were excited, as I am, about a school that emphasizes the skills—in science, technology, engineering, and math—and the attitudes—of wonder, creativity, and exploration—that will enable them to live good and rewarding lives in the twenty-first century.
We're in the midst of a global economic crisis that has only deepened the problems of families who find it difficult to afford health care and meet monthly expenses, and of communities who find it difficult to provide essential services. Traditional public schools, charter schools, and increasingly, colleges and universities, are operating on a shoestring. This sounds like a bad time to take on the challenges, financial and otherwise, of opening a new school. But I would argue that it's precisely the time, and that schools like Cannon River STEM School are needed now more than ever.
McKinsey & Company recently issued a report on The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in Education that offers this stark conclusion: "The report finds that the underutilization of human potential as reflected in the achievement gap is extremely costly. Existing gaps impose the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession—one substantially larger than the deep recession the country is currently experiencing. For individuals, avoidable shortfalls in academic achievement impose heavy and often tragic consequences via lower earnings, poor health, and higher rates of incarceration."
An achievement gap exists not only between minority and white students, and between the children of low- and high-income families, but between the United States and other nations. The achievement gap between the U.S. and other countries is especially striking in the areas of science and math. Based on 2003 data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students were outscored by students from 23 of 29 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states on math literacy, and by students from 19 of 29 OECD member states on scientific literacy.
I've taken these numbers from a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service on the need for increased STEM education to close this achievement gap with other nations. What the McKinsey report adds is an estimate that this gap represents a $1.3 to $2.3 trillion loss to the GDP of the United States. In other words, closing the educational achievement gap with other nations has the potential to raise our national GDP by 9% to 16%.
$2 trillion, incidentally, is the amount of taxpayer money that the Federal Reserve made out in emergency loans to failing banks beginning last September. Our priorities have become seriously skewed if we are spending on financial bailouts what we could be earning from an investment in education.
I've talked to some wonderful and promising teachers this week. I know that Cannon River STEM School has the right vision, and I'm willing to put in hundreds of hours of volunteer time to make that vision a reality. Being a member of the Cannon River STEM School board won't make me richer by a single cent. But I believe the school will help make the world richer, in more ways than one.
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