President Barack Obama announced a $250 million initiative Wednesday to train math and science teachers and help meet his goal of pushing America's students from the middle to the top of the pack in those subjects in the next decade.
Obama also gave awards for excellence in teaching and mentoring to more than 100 educators — and joked about putting them to work.
"I believe so strongly in the work that you do," Obama said at a ceremony in the White House East Room. "And as I mentioned to some of you, because I've got two girls upstairs with math tests coming up, I figure that a little extra help from the best of the best couldn't hurt.
"So you're going to have assignments after this," he said. The audience laughed. "These awards were not free," he added.
Obama said teacher quality is the most important single factor that influences whether students succeed or fail in the "STEM" fields of science, technology, engineering and math. But, he said, U.S. students trail their peers around the world.
He said a substantial shortage of teachers in these subject areas will deepen unless steps are taken to reverse the trend, and that doing so requires outside help because the federal government cannot do it alone.
Obama said the $250 million in public and private investments for his "Educate to Innovate" campaign will help train more than 100,000 teachers and prepare more than 10,000 new educators in the next five years.
Support is expected from Intel Corp., the National Math and Science Initiative, PBS and the National Science Teachers Association, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the presidents of more than 75 of the country's largest public universities.
Obama also called on the 200,000 scientists who work for the federal government to help by speaking at schools and participating in hands-on projects to help stoke a youngster's curiosity in science.
"Make no mistake: Our future is on the line," he said. "The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow."
Obama, who has included students in several science events at the White House, said he would do his part, too. Planning is under way for a White House science fair to honor student winners of national science and technology competitions, he said.