U.S. Department of Education to Partner with Girl Scouts of the USA to Expand Initiatives to Encourage Girls to Discover the Wonders of Math and Science

Secretary of Education Speaks Out on Math-Science Gender Gap in Schools


May 15, 2006

Valerie Smith
U.S. Department of Education
(202) 401-7693

"We're reaching out to bring professionals from the field into our classrooms...who better than trailblazers like Sally Ride and Kathie Olsen to show students what math and science can accomplish in the real world? Our country can't afford to lose half of our potential innovators, especially in this ever-flattening, Ipod-loving, TiVo-watching world."

— U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' delivered remarks to the first National Summit on the Advancement of Girls in Math and Science in Washington, D.C.

Left to right: Neela's mother Mrudula, Neela, Patricia Diaz Dennis, Margaret Spellings (U.S. Secretary of Education). Copyright © 2006 NASA/Renee Bouchard.Secretary Spellings and co-host Dr. Kathie Olsen, Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation, joined leaders from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Sally Ride Science, Girl Scouts of the USA and dozens of national organizations to address the math-science gender gap in our schools and its effect on women entering the fastest-growing jobs of the future. Following are the Secretary's prepared remarks:

It's an honor and a thrill to be here with you and so many other talented leaders. Like my co-host, Dr. Kathie Olsen from the National Science Foundation; former astronaut Sally Ride; and Senator Ron Wyden.

I'd also like to thank Jim Whaley of the Siemens Foundation for making this luncheon possible. I recently met with George Nolen, President and CEO of Siemens Corporation, and I look forward to working with him on President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative.

We are joined by more than 100 of the best and brightest scientists, explorers, and entrepreneurs in the world. These women have ventured into space, set records in undersea research, and soared to the top of the Fortune 500. According to a recent Economist magazine, women have been the "main driving force of growth in the past couple of decades," contributing more to the worldwide GDP than new technology or advancing countries like China and India.

Today, American technology from semiconductors to cell phones is connecting people around the world like never before. As a result, what you know means far more than where you live.

Today's students need strong math and science skills to succeed in fields like computer programming and bioengineering, and in others you might not expect—like advertising, consulting, and business. Several members of the President's Cabinet have backgrounds in math and science. And more S&P 500 CEOs majored in engineering than in any other field. Why? Because math and science teach you to solve problems.

Knowing this, I'm always glad to see students who are inspired by math and science. Like the high school seniors studying forensics in Birmingham, and the National Science Bowl finalists, who are getting recruited by some of the top labs in the country.

Last month President Bush and I visited a sixth-grade class in Maryland called Introduction to Robotic Systems. Think about that—a sixth-grade class in robotic systems! The teacher walked up to President Bush and said, "Welcome to the future." And he was right. These classes are training the innovators and leaders who will lead our country into the 21st century.

But there's one question that is bothering me: Where are all the girls?

Girls continue to be underrepresented in critical fields related to math and science. They make up only a third of AP physics students...and only 15 percent of AP computer science classes. At the college level, less than 20 percent of engineering majors are women. The number of women with computer science degrees has dropped 25 percent since 1985.

Of course, all of us know that girls aren't the only ones who struggle in school. We must also look out for the boys, and we are. But as Sally Ride has said, "You don't stop research on breast cancer just because heart disease is also deadly. You work on both."

Our country can't afford to lose half of our potential innovators, especially in this ever-flattening, Ipod-loving, TiVo-watching world. That's why Kathie [Olsen] and I convened this first-ever National Summit on the Advancement of Girls in Math and Science. By bringing together the best and brightest women leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—and a few men, too—we've started to develop a coordinated national strategy.

We at the Department of Education are committed to doing our part. Today I'm announcing a comprehensive review of the research on how and why girls are turning away from the fields of the future. We need definitive insights into what goes wrong, when, and why. As President Bush likes to say, you can't solve a problem until you've diagnosed it.

We already know that one of our primary challenges is to change the culture. I can't tell you how frustrated I get when I hear otherwise intelligent adults—frequently women—brag about their inability to balance a checkbook or calculate a tip. We would never brag about being unable to read a street sign or a prescription bottle. So why is it okay to brag about poor math skills?

Starting today, we'll be partnering with the Girl Scouts to expand initiatives such as their campaign with the Ad Council on girls and math and science. People need to realize that Algebra, geometry, and calculus teach problem-solving skills that are essential for every student—not just the top one percent.

When you see that math is everywhere these days, and you know that less than half of our students graduate from high school ready for college-level math and science, it's upsetting to hear that 70 percent of high school parents say their children are learning enough about these subjects.

Unfortunately, most students feel the same. A recent survey showed that 84 percent of middle school students would rather clean their rooms, take out the garbage, or go to the dentist than do their math homework.

I suspect this problem has something to do with the fact that our school systems are desperate for math and science teachers—especially in urban areas. Research shows that teachers with strong content knowledge get better results in the classroom. Unfortunately, in high-poverty middle and high schools, only one out of every two math teachers majored or minored in the field they're teaching. In science, that number drops to only one out of three.

The heads of the math and science teachers associations are here with me today, and I'd like to thank you for your commitment to your students. The President and I know America needs more people like you.

So, we're reaching out to bring professionals from the field into our classrooms. President Bush has called for $25 million to help recruit 30,000 math and science professionals to be adjunct teachers. After all, who better than trailblazers like Sally [Ride] and Kathie [Olsen] to show students what math and science can accomplish in the real world?

To support current and new math teachers with the tools they need to succeed, last month the President established a National Math Panel. I'll be announcing the members today, and one of them is with us--Dr. Camilla Benbow, Dean of the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. By January 31st, 2007, she and the rest of the panel will review the best research available and issue a report on what works in teaching math. And to help schools apply those recommendations, President Bush has asked the Congress to fund a new initiative called Math Now.

We at the Department of Education will expand our Teacher-to-Teacher workshops to help teachers inspire girls and boys to become innovators and problem solvers. We will make this training available online, for free, for all to use.

I may not be a scientist, but I have a firm belief in bringing research-based insights into our classrooms. Scientists, engineers, and successful business leaders agree that measuring results is the foundation of any successful endeavor.

Because we've measured student progress under No Child Left Behind, we know that math scores in the early grades are at all-time highs - for the student population as a whole, and for African American and Hispanic students. Over the last two years alone, the number of fourth-graders who learned their fundamental math skills increased by 235,000—enough to fill 500 elementary schools.

Starting in 2007, we'll also be measuring achievement in science. Once we have strong data on what's happening in our science classes, we'll be better equipped to ensure both boys and girls are getting the quality education they deserve. As President Bush said in the State of the Union, "If we ensure that America's children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world."

In the last 50 years, American ingenuity has put a man on the moon, a rover on Mars, and computers in our businesses, our homes, and even our pockets. We launched the World Wide Web, mapped the human genome, and developed life-extending drugs and treatment for AIDS. The trailblazing women who are here today remind us that America has always been the most innovative society in the world. And together, we'll make sure we always are.

Thank you.