Virginia needs to focus on STEM
August 16th, 2012

There is an understated component of the economic crisis in the US economy that needs immediate attention. Every day we hear about federal budgets, the impact of the global economy, unemployment, and consumer confidence. Often the report on these is bad. But have you paid attention to the news that business actually has over 3,000,000 jobs available for the applicant with the appropriate training in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.)

What kind of job is a STEM job? The acronym is itself a good explanation: jobs that require a strong foundation in science and math, comfort with applications of technology, and often associated with engineering. One might assume that a Bachelors Degree or higher is required to be considered STEM prepared, but this is not the case. Many STEM jobs are entry-level in advanced manufacturing, IT, or medical professions and can be secured through an appropriate certification program. The problem is that they do require a good foundation in math and science, a willingness to embrace the use of technology, and a strong work ethic. Most students coming out of high school today do not have this foundation or an understanding of how this issue will impact their future.

What has caused this crisis? As is always the case, the causes are many and complicated. I offer a generalization from the perspective of a career educator. We are not focusing on appropriate academic expectations in our schools nor providing the correct guidance to our K-12 students and their parents.

For at least the past two decades the focus of educational funding and accountability has been on minimum competencies and skills for all children. There is absolutely a need for this emphasis. Schools in every community need to be held to a standard of expectation so that all children will have opportunity for an adequate education. But while we legislate minimum expectations for all students we cannot ignore that academic excellence must be the goal if this nation is going to compete in a high-tech global economy. Academic excellence cannot be legislated. Excellence is a unique quality specific for each individual child. But the challenge to move to excellence must be identified as a goal beyond minimum expectations, available in each school, and supported by parents, teachers and the community.

Let me be more specific. The minimum competencies in Virginia are the Standards of Learning. We have legislated that all children pass minimum competency tests and earn credit in a minimum number of classes to get a Standard or Advanced Study Diploma. Our tax dollar support for K12 education is set so that schools will have revenue for these minimum expectations. Students, teachers, and administrators are held accountable for a schools performance on these minimum expectations. Where are the focus, support, and accountability for academic excellence? Students and parents think that success with the SOL and minimum graduation requirements has prepared them for success in college or a career. The reality is that most high school graduates don’t have sufficient preparation for either college or career. Thus, American businesses cannot fill 3,000,000 STEM focused jobs with workers.

How do we move beyond focusing on minimum competencies? First, students and their parents need to understand that most jobs currently available, and are projected to be available in the foreseeable future, require a strong academic foundation in math and science. Currently the average student can complete graduation requirements in math and science by the tenth grade. Rather than focus on graduation requirements they need guidance in making career plans and completing appropriate coursework to prepare for that career. This would include math and science through the 12th grade.

Second, students must be directed into classes with academic rigor rather than minimum expectations. Parents often hamper this effort as they insist that their child needs to take the class that they will get an A so that they will have the best GPA. Some schools have as many as five levels of a required class, like English, to accommodate this request. This creates grade inflation rather than preparation. College and careers require rigorous academics and students must learn to deal with rigor in high school. Many college professors have stated that they prefer to see a student with a C in an advanced academic class rather than an A in a minimum-competency class.

Finally, business needs to partner with schools. Public tax dollars support the requirements of minimum competencies. Schools are held accountable for minimum competencies. Business needs students with advanced academics and must get involved in pushing STEM opportunities and supporting them financially. Teachers must be trained and supported to teach beyond the minimum. Classroom labs must be equipped for students to learn by experiment rather than memorizing science facts for a multiple-choice test. Students need more time to learn advanced academics. All of this requires resources beyond what is available through public support. We need public/private partnerships to take care of this need.

Have you seen the ExxonMobil commercials on TV promoting STEM education in K12 schools? ExxonMobil contributed $125,000,000.00 to the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) in 2007 to help move the country in this direction. The results of their donation and efforts are staggering. Your company can easily be a part of this important initiative. Virginia Advanced Study Strategies (VASS) is the NMSI effort in Virginia. You can “friend us” on Facebook, or look us up on our website ( for more information. VASS is currently partnering with such wonderful business as: Altria, BAE Systems, Dominion, ExxonMobil, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, DoDEA, and Boeing as well as the Jack Kent Cook Foundation and the Tobacco Commission. We welcome additional partners in our effort to support schools in making this critical transition from focusing on minimum expectations to advanced academics in STEM so that Virginia business will have the workers they need and the Commonwealth will continue to prosper in this global economy.