Why are U.S. children so far behind in science and math compared with those in other developed countries?

The question has plagued researchers, educators and politicians for decades. And finding an answer—and solutions to remedy it—may be a crucial step in keeping U.S. science, medical and technology fields at the top of their game.

A panel of experts, moderated by The Wall Street Journal's managing editor, Alan Murray, gathered recently to discuss some of the challenges behind improving K-12 math and science education across the country.

Research and experience have shown that even more than good schools, good teachers are key to improving individual students' learning. "We know today that good teachers make all the difference," Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, said at the panel.

"The most important thing is to bring to K-12 education college graduates who excel in math and sciences," added Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Whereas other countries recruit teachers from the top tier of graduates, he said, "America is recruiting our teachers generally from the bottom third."

Convincing star college scientists to enter the field of K-12 education can be a hard sell, especially when comparing salaries of public school teachers with those elsewhere in the science industry. Universities entice great minds with pay that is more competitive within the field—physicists generally earning more than humanities instructors to reflect jobs outside of the ivory tower. Public schools, however, pay teachers based on seniority and education rather than field. 

Aside from upping the competitiveness of science and math teacher salaries, most of the panelists agreed that competition among schools needed to be increased. "Competition is extremely weak with respect to most education contexts," said Christopher Edley, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, and former member of the Obama education transition team. He and others noted that schools should be brought into more direct competition with each other (in part by expanding student choices through the creation of charter schools). Advances in science or math education are often not embraced as quickly as those in private industry because schools and instructors have little external incentive to improve their product (other than meeting basic proficiency requirements).

Competition, however, shouldn't entirely overtake the role of regulation, concluded Edley. "This is a huge, huge industry," he said. "Ultimately, you're going to have to use competition to identify the innovations that work, but then… require of low-performing schools that they adopt best practices." The education policy debate, noted Murray, is not unlike that currently taking place over health care: Do you create an environment with forced competition or place more emphasis on regulation?

Despite the myriad of other pressing policy issues facing the Obama administration, education has continued to rank among the top priorities. As it should, said Klein: "If we keep neglecting this issue, we are making a huge, huge mistake." 

Image of a Union City, NJ science classroom courtesy of Nightscream via Wikimedia Commons