Wisconsin’s bid for federal “race to the top” education grants got a mediocre C-minus from the reviewers at the U.S. Department of Education, who said the state’s application fell short in some crucial ways. Most notably, the feds said, Wisconsin needed more robust plans for improving student achievement as well as the effectiveness of teachers.

Wisconsin will get a chance to score higher in the second round of the federal competition, but it will take lots of homework to whip the state’s application into shape.

The idea of federal challenge grants to reform elementary and secondary education is commendable, given the importance of education to a secure, prosperous nation, but it’s important to note Washington has historically played a limited role in how states and communities run their schools. In fact, well over 90 percent of all funding for local schools comes from the states and communities themselves – and Wisconsin is typically ranked among the bottom five states in receiving federal aid.

In short, the “race to the top” in Wisconsin will likely be won or lost on the strength of decisions made here – by parents, teachers, school officials, policymakers and students.

That begins with a commitment to excellence and recognition that Wisconsin needs a better educated workforce to compete in the global economy. Let’s take science and technology education as an example.

A generation ago, the United States was third per capita in the world in producing engineers – a key indicator of science and technology dominance. Today, the nation is 17th in the world. In part, that’s because emerging nations are catching up. But it’s also because fewer students are getting turned on to science, technology, engineering and math at an early age.

Wisconsin doesn’t need a federal grant to know what works in that arena. Many school districts are revising their science and technology curricula with the help of proven private strategies such as Project Lead the Way, Science Olympiad and First Robotics. These programs are helping entire districts, schools or individual teachers do a better job of exciting students at a critical age.

Such innovation comes at a critical time – and amid signs of some progress. National math scores released last October have risen 20 points for eighth graders and 27 points for fourth graders since 1990, according to 2009 test results. That means fourth graders knew about two-and-a-half years’ more math than 1990 fourth graders. But in the most recent period, from 2007 to 2009, math scores failed to rise much, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

There’s pretty good evidence about what works. High-quality early childhood programs help many kids from falling behind. Intensive efforts in the ninth grade – sometimes called education’s “Bermuda Triangle” – work when core classes such as math are made more challenging. Career academies and other efforts to link employers into the classroom also work, especially with science and math programs.

While Wisconsin students perform ahead of the national average in many ways, segments of the state’s K-12 population are failing to gain the science, technology, engineering and math skills they need to become successful workers in a global economy. Many students, particularly young women, lose interest in science and math by the time they’ve completed middle school. Too many students are not exposed to careers that may not require a four-year college degree – but which require a strong working knowledge of science and math.

Some people mistakenly believe there are only a few science, technology, engineering and math jobs out there. The state Department of Workforce Development has estimated that one in 10 Wisconsin jobs is a so-called “STEM” job. It has also predicted that STEM jobs will be among the fastest-growing occupations in the state.

The “race to the top” for education excellence in Wisconsin begins at home, no matter what transpires over time with the federal grant. The real prize is a stronger economy driven by a well-educated workforce.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. In 2009, the Tech Council issued “Educating a Tech-Savvy Workforce for Wisconsin,” a report on science, technology, engineering and math education in Wisconsin. Read more at http://wisconsintechnologycouncil.com/uploads/Tech-Savvy_WhitePaper_FINAL.pdf

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