NEW ORLEANS - Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday he wants to launch a "new era" of science education in the United States, one that encourages students to ask tough, challenging questions and brings more specially trained science and math teachers into the classroom.
Duncan told the National Science Teachers Association during a visit to New Orleans that President Barack Obama sees a need for inventors and engineers along with poets and scholars and "will not allow scientific research to be held hostage to a political agenda."
"Whether it's global warming, evolution or stem cell research, science will be honored. It will be respected and supported by this administration," he said.
The federal stimulus bill includes more than $100 billion in new education funding, with $650 million set aside for technology grants, he said. Duncan couldn't say how much money would go specifically into science but pledged funds would be available to modernize labs.
He also said many of the teaching jobs saved with stimulus dollars would be in science labs. But the money must be used wisely, he said, not just on saving jobs but also on driving strong reforms.
Duncan also cited a $5-billion "race to the top fund" to provide incentives to states already doing innovative, reform-minded work. He said there's been a "dumbing down of standards for political reasons" under the current system of states with their own benchmarks and standards. That system doesn't make much sense, he said, drawing applause, and it isn't doing students any favors in the global economy.
He said there's a need for common, high standards that prepare students for college and the work force and for international benchmarks to compare U.S. students with their counterparts around the world. He said he's working with state leaders who've taken a lead in school reforms and hopes to come up with a better system.
"I think in far too many states, meeting standards means you are at best barely qualified to graduate from high school, and you are woefully unprepared to go to college," he said. "We have been lying to children, and we are setting them up for long-term failure. That has to stop."
He said the country has a long way to go to improve science education. Sectors including engineering, health care, technology and green energy need more workers, and "a generalist," too often, is teaching middle school kids, he said.
That's been a problem for years, and the market needs to pay science and math teachers more, he said.
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