The Difficult Prize

The fact that we need more students to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is now pretty well established. Math and science fields are central to invocation and America remaining competitive. As President Obama said back in September last year:

When I came into office, I set a goal of moving our nation from the middle to the top of the pack in math and science education. Strengthening STEM education is vital to preparing our students to compete in the 21st century economy and we need to recruit and train math and science teachers to support our nation’s students.

It’s the importance of the STEM fields that to led the Reagan administration to create the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 1983. Except the program isn’t working. There are more awards available than there are applicants.

According to an article by Jeffrey Mervis in Education Week:

Eighty-five elementary teachers will be in Washington this week to receive what many science educators regard as the Nobel Prize of their profession. And while White House officials will lavish well-deserved praise on this year’s recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, they are unlikely to mention one disturbing fact: The winners, from 49 states and three other U.S. jurisdictions, represent 21 fewer teachers than the program is designed to honor, nearly a quarter of the slots.

The most obvious reason, experts say, is that there are so few teachers willing to complete the application process.

Each state can nominate three finalists. The finalists then have to apply by submitting a 30-minute classroom video with a 15-page narration of that video to demonstrate and explain interaction with students. Teachers must also submit background information and letters of recommendation.

The award includes a $10,000 prize but, according to the article, many teachers find the process of applying to difficult and the selection criteria arbitrary and unfair.

In fact, it’s almost like the program was designed to discourage people from studying and teaching in STEM fields.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer