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Commentary: The future is STEM — but without enough students, the U.S. will be left behind

Mark Schneider | September 19, 2023

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A photo of the U.S. Capitol buildingIn 2022, the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering report sounded an alarm. The report showed that the United States is falling behind in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM fields. According to the foundation, America no longer produces the most science and engineering research publications — that’s China. We no longer produce the most patents — that’s China. Now that we no longer graduate the most natural-science Ph.D.s — that’s also China — these trends are unlikely to change anytime soon.

The problem isn’t that the U.S. lacks the universities to train future scientists or an economy capable of encouraging innovation. Rather, the problem originates much earlier in the supply chain. It starts in our elementary and secondary schools.

In 2019, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Nation’s Report Card, presented evidence that American students are struggling in the sciences. Over a quarter of fourth graders earned a score below basic; by 12th grade, that proportion grows to over 40%. A similar pattern is evident in NAEP math scores. Indeed, recent 2022 NAEP test scores for math show declining scores and increasing percentage of students below basic. While overall patterns are discouraging, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students falling below basic in science and math is even higher.

Congress has a chance to help turn this around, by passing the New Essential Education Discoveries (NEED) Act. This groundbreaking legislation aims to establish the National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE) within the Institute of Education Sciences, a center that would be modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

NCADE would bring promising practices directly into classrooms, leveraging the extensive research investments made by the institute over the past two decades. This is essential, because unless the nation does something radical to transform education sciences research and translate the basic research in which the institute has traditionally invested into applied, practical and scalable products and interventions, the already eroding U.S. lead in STEM will fade even further.

This is not just a problem in schools and with tests. Educational outcomes affect just about every aspect of American lives, including national security. A recent Aspen Strategy Group report concludes that the “U.S. needs the national security community to weigh in on education as a national security priority.” The report further highlights how the newest STEM skills, like data science, are far too often neglected in favor of traditional math subjects such as trigonometry and calculus. These concerns are widespread. Teachers themselves are highly concerned. In a recent national poll released by the Walton Family Foundation, around 40% of teachers say schools are not preparing young people for future careers.

There is also the disturbing fact that less than a quarter of the nation’s young adults qualify for military service, based in part on poor academic performance. Furthermore, the gaps in qualified applicants for STEM jobs are even more pronounced between genders and ethnicities, and while STEM jobs and degrees have steadily increased since 2000, the diversity of the workforce has not. The U.S. simply cannot compete in the global economy with so many Black, Hispanic, and female students not mastering needed STEM skills and aptitudes.

NCADE would bring promising practices directly into classrooms, leveraging the extensive research investments made by the institute over the past two decades. It would represent a transformative step toward addressing learning recovery and providing unwavering support to students throughout their educational journey and into the workforce — and it couldn’t come at a more critical time.

The education workforce pipeline foundation is on thin ice. Without significant intervention and added resources, the United States education system risks plunging into a crisis of unrecoverable proportions in STEM.

The nation can’t spend the next decade diagnosing this problem and letting students fall further behind. We need to develop the tools to act with urgency and creativity. NCADE is our chance to show that we take learning seriously and that we aren’t willing to shrug off the last few years of declining educational progress as a tragedy that will be fixed by employing business-as-usual methods.

The NEED Act will help build a better, faster, more efficient education R&D that can transform the learning environment so students can prosper in the global economy they face today and will for decades to come.

Mark Schneider is director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the United States Department of Education. Before assuming that role, he was a vice president and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research and the president of College Measures. He previously served as the U.S. commissioner of education statistics from 2005 to 2008 and is a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

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