HOUSTON— U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Manor New Technology High School in a suburb of Austin, the capital of Texas, Thursday to launch what the White House is calling a "Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour." The school has gained nationwide recognition for its program that focuses on math, science and engineering, which are seen as key areas for future job growth. But, it is the teaching style as much as the curriculum that counts.
Demand for high technology workers is growing at a rate much higher than other fields, and recent studies have shown students in the United States lagging behind in those subjects. To address this problem, schools like Manor New Technology High School use a curriculum called STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
But the school also uses an innovative approach to teaching, focusing on projects that engage the students rather than on teacher lectures. Most of the science and math teachers who helped launch Manor New Technology High School six years ago and remain there are graduates of the innovation-oriented UTeach program at the University of Texas in Austin, which is co-directed by Lawrence Abraham.
"They put together the curriculum, which has elevated this school, among all the new tech schools in the network around the country, to be the premier site, and we think it is the marriage of the UTeach program, which prepares teachers and encourages teachers to teach in a project-based way, with the new tech curriculum model, which is designed to incorporate that," said Abraham.
Of Manor New Technology's 332 students, 68 percent are from ethnic or racial minorities, and 52 percent are from economically disadvantaged families. Overall in the United States, these are groups whose education levels tend to be low and dropout rates tend to be high. But this school sent 97 percent of its graduates to college in 2011 and all of its graduates in 2012.
But these schools count on special federal and state funding as well as support from private foundations that most schools do not have. There also is concern about neglect of the arts and social sciences. Last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott stirred debate by proposing an end to state funding of university programs in subjects like psychology and anthropology, in order to put more money into STEM programs that he said would provide people with jobs.
But educators say that kind of thinking misses the point of what can be accomplished by innovative, inter-disciplinary teaching. Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas professor of history, says the goal of education goes beyond preparation for employment.
"Obviously science and math literacy are crucial, but democratic citizenship requires that people have a sense of our historical background as a society, a sense of how our society functions and an understanding of what democracy looks like in theory and in practice," said Suri.
Suri says success in the workplace today more than ever depends on good communication, an ability to work well with others in a team effort and an understanding of cultures.
Lawrence Abraham agrees, noting that the UTeach program favors an integrated, team-teaching approach that encourages students to explore a vast array of material. As an example, he cites a class he observed at Manor New Technology High School.
"They basically were studying and reconstructing the early [ancient] Egyptian tools that were used to build the pyramids, studying the engineering principles involved, but also the social, cultural dynamic of the time," he said. "This appreciation of sociology, history, the arts, is something that is blended into this program."
Programs like UTeach at the University of Texas are helping develop better teachers and also struggling to keep up with the demand for more of them. Studies indicate U.S. schools will need to increase the number of graduates proficient in mathematics and science by 34 percent annually just to keep up with the demand from employers.