Center for Engineering, Science and Mathematics Education

STEM Education Crisis

California remains a world leader in science and technology, thanks to its highly skilled science and engineering (S & E) workforce. There are, however, clear signs of trouble on the horizon. As documented in a number of reports, the state's ability to continue to marshal a vital and globally competitive S & E workforce is threatened by a variety of long-term trends.

  • The state's science and engineering workers are mature - nearly 40 percent are age 45 or older. And, they are preponderantly white (55 percent) or foreign-born (36 percent). Only 10 percent of California's science and engineering workers are Hispanic. 1
  • A Milken Institute report points to a worrying decline in science and technology-related human capital development in California, and concludes: "The main threat to California's status as a top-tier performer in technology and science can be seen in the severe deterioration of its measures of human capital. The state faces serious challenges due to its growing undereducated and unskilled labor force, a struggling K-12 system, and the rising cost of doing business." 2
  • California students' performance in science and mathematics is among the poorest in the U.S. A recent national report noted that California eighth graders rank in the bottom one-fifth of U.S. students in both mathematics and science, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 3
  • California lags behind a number of other states in the number of years of math and science instruction it requires for both high school graduation and admission to its public universities. 4
  • Significant gaps in achievement persist between white and Asian students on one hand and Hispanic, African American and Native American students on the other hand. These are evident, for example, in the continued disparities in:
    • Rates of high school graduation. 5
    • Rates of university eligibility. 6
    • Rates of college participation. 7
    • Rates of graduation from college. 8
  • At the same time, the state's minority population has grown dramatically. Two-thirds of our P-12 students are minority and one-quarter are English Learners. Of this population, nearly half are Hispanic and one-fifth are English learners. Most of the population growth we will experience over the next decade will be concentrated in the Hispanic population.
  • Recent Public Policy Institute of California reports forecast that, at current rates of educational participation and degree attainment by California students, we are not on track to meet California's overall need for college-educated workers, even taking into account continued in-migration of workers from other states and countries. In 2020, 39 percent of jobs will require a college degree but only 33 percent of workers will have one. 9 We should anticipate a particular challenge in meeting the demand for college educated science and engineering workers.
  • If we fail to make progress, the consequences for our state will be dire. A 2005 report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems projects that California will see a $2,475 decline in per capita income by 2020 unless rates of educational achievement improve. 10

In sum, the state has an aging S & E workforce, an increasingly diverse P-12 student population whose rates of educational participation and success lag behind much of the rest of the country, and little prospect of recruiting sufficient numbers of qualified S & E workers from other states and countries to make up the gap between the projected demand for skilled workers and the supply of qualified California graduates. If California does not take aggressive action to address these trends, it faces the very real prospect of losing its scientific and technological competitive edge over the next few decades. To ensure that California continues to be able to field a diverse, technically skilled and globally competitive S & E workforce, we must increase educational participation and success rates at each step along the P-20 educational continuum and undertake concerted efforts to attract more of the state's diverse students into STEM disciplines and careers.

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Solutions to the STEM Education Crisis

There is significant and growing agreement about both the importance of STEM education to California and the nation and about the system changes that must be accomplished to expand STEM educational participation and success rates among diverse students. A number of recent reports have called for renewed investment in STEM education to permit us to sustain our position of technological leadership and have identified the specific actions necessary to accomplish this. To cite just a few examples:

  • In 2005 a blue ribbon committee of the National Academies, responding to a congressional charge, issued the report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." It recommended key steps the nation must take to preserve its capacity to compete technologically and economically in an increasingly competitive global environment. Two of the four main recommendations in this report called upon the nation to expand its investment in STEM education - from kindergarten through graduate school.
  • In two other recent national reports, the Business-Higher Education Forum highlighted the critical role that K-12 science and mathematics education play in preparing students to pursue STEM careers:
    • the 2005 report, "A Commitment to America's Future: Responding to the Crisis in Mathematics and Science Education," and
    • the 2007 report, "An American Imperative: Transforming the Recruitment, Retention, and Renewal Of Our Nation's Mathematics and Science Teaching Workforce."

These reports call upon the nation to make it an urgent national priority to strengthen K-12 science and mathematics education and in particular to invest in renewal of the science and mathematics teacher workforce.

  • The California Council on Science and Technology raised similar concerns in several reports over the past decade:
    • the 1999 "California Report on the Environment for Science and Technology"
    • the 2002 "Critical Path Analysis of California's S&T Education System"
    • the 2006 "Shaping The Future: California's Response to Rising Above the Gathering Storm" (This proposed response by California to the major recommendations in the National Academies' report was developed as a result of a request from Governor Schwarzenegger.)
    • the 2007 "Critical Path Analysis of California's Science and Mathematics Teacher Preparation System"

These reports documented strong continuing demand for science and technology workers in the California economy, an educational system that is failing to keep pace with this demand, and a K-12 science and mathematics teacher workforce that is being eroded by retirements and attrition without sufficient numbers of qualified replacement teachers. In particular, the 2006 proposed response to "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" urged the Governor to give priority attention to several recommendations, the first of which was: "Increase California's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education." 11

  • The California Space Education and Workforce Institute, in spring 2008, published a plan for STEM education ("High Stakes: STEM Education - The Essential Ingredient for California Competitiveness") that called for action at the statewide and regional levels to promote student awareness and participation in STEM, foster development of engaging and effective STEM curricula, and promote recruitment, preparation, retention and renewal of STEM teachers.

CESAME, Cal Poly and the California State University are working on ways to implement many of these solutions as we work toward making progress on solving the STEM education crisis in California.


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  1. Population Reference Bureau 2007 (http://www.prb.org/pdf07/StateProfiles/StateProfiles_05_CA.pdf).
  2. DeVol, Ross and Anita Charuworn with Soojung Kim, "California's Position in Technology and Science: A Comparative Benchmarking Assessment," Milken Institute, June 2008, p. 5.
  3. Education Week, "Technology Counts 2008," p. 4.
  4. UNC Office of the President, "Background on the Increase in the UNC Board of Governors' Minimum Course Requirements for Undergraduate Admission," April 14, 2000.
  5. A 2005 study reported the following rates of high school graduation for selected subgroups of the California class of 2002: White 76%; Black 59%; Latino 54% (Green, Jay P. and Marcus A. Winters, Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, February 2005, cited in de Cos, Patricia L., High School Dropouts, Enrollment, and Graduation Rates in California, California Research Bureau, CRB 05-008, November 2005, p. 26).
  6. A 2005 CPEC study reported rates of UC and CSU eligibility for various racial and ethnic sub-groups for the class of 2001 and for the class of 2003. For the 2003 class, the rates of CSU eligibility were: Asian 47.5%; White 34.3%; American Indian 19.7%; African American 18.6%; and Latino 16.0% (CPEC, "University Eligibility Study for the Class of 2001," Commission Report 05-09, September 2005, p. 4).
  7. A 2006 CPEC working paper reported college-going rates for 2005 California public high school graduates. The combined rates of attendance at the UC/CSU for various sub-groups were as follows: Asian 35%; White 15%; African American 13.1%; Native American 11.7%; and Latino 10.9%. (CPEC "College-Going Rates of California Public High School Graduates: Statewide and Local Figures," Working Paper WP/06-03, Sept. 2006, p. 1).
  8. According to CSU's Office of Analytic Studies, six-year graduation rates for first-time freshman students from the 2000 cohort were as follows for various sub-groups: White 53.7%; Asian or Pacific Islander 48.5%; American Indian 42.3%; Hispanic 42.0%; and. African American 31.8%. (Source:www.asd.edu/csrde/ftf/2005htm/sys.htm)
  9. Public Policy Institute of California, "Getting to 2025: Can California Meet the Challenges?" Research Brief, Issue #100, June 2005, p.1. Hans P. Johnson and Deborah Reed, "Can California Import Enough College Graduates to Meet Workforce Needs?" Public Policy Institute of California: California Counts: Population Trends and Profiles, Vol. 8, Number 4, May 2007.
  10. Kelly 2005, "As America Becomes More Diverse: The Impact of State Higher Education Inequality." National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), p. 25.
  11. http://www.ccst.us/publications/2006/2006gatheringstorm1.html

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