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Updated June 30
Efforts are underway in Congress to enhance the scientific competitiveness of the nation. These efforts are laudable, but I fear they do not do enough to establish the necessary educational foundation in science, technology, engineering and math, especially for Black and Hispanic youth.
The United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), recently passed by the Senate and now being considered in the House of Representatives, would expand the National Science Foundation to include a new Technology and Innovation Directorate. The goal is to advance research and development in key technology areas, including artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum computing, advanced communications, biotechnology and advanced energy.
USICA contains provisions to support work within NSF to bolster STEM in both the nation’s K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. For example, it raises the ceiling on NSF investments in STEM and workforce development from less than $1 billion this year to more than $4 billion in 2026. Funds are also authorized to increase the availability of undergraduate research experiences, community college scholarships, apprenticeships, graduate fellowships and traineeships.
As a major effort to boost the future of American technology, USICA is a good start — but it’s incomplete. Attention to applied education research is missing, meaning the very foundation for so much of the work that USICA will support is weak. As a nation, there is a great deal that we need to learn about how to improve instruction in math and science. The evidence of the weakness of the educational foundation for American STEM competitiveness is clear from the performance of our students on both national and international assessments. There is also evidence from a large-scale international assessment of adult competencies that America’s historical advantage, based on having a skilled adult workforce, is eroding relative to global competitors, particularly China.
For example, the most recent math and science results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress show that around a third of American eighth-graders are below basic in math and science, a proportion that climbed to 40 percent by 12th grade. The proportion of Black and Hispanic students who perform below basic is far larger: around two-thirds for Black 12th-graders and well over half for Hispanic 12th-graders. Students perform somewhat better on the technology and engineering literacy assessment, though large racial disparities remain.
Blacks and Hispanics together represent around one-third of the nation’s population — and an even larger share of the student population. It is going to be difficult to build a diverse STEM workforce with so many students from these groups underprepared in core STEM disciplines. If we continue to neglect the education of these students and the raw talent represented by so many Americans, the U.S. will be trying to compete with at least one hand tied behind our back.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development administers two large-scale international assessments that give some additional insights into the ability of the U.S. to compete in the increasingly global economy — and the numbers are not good.
The Programme for the International Assessment of Students (PISA) compares the literacy of 15-year-olds across the globe. In 2018, 77 nations and “education systems” participated in PISA. In mathematics, American 15-year-olds rank around the middle of the pack globally, whether looking at average scores or the scores of the top performers. Science performance is better, but still outside the global top 10.
The organization also administers the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Most recently, the U.S. ranked 22 out of 33 on numeracy scores for young adults (24 or younger); but Americans ages 55 and above did far better, ranking 13th. The exam also tested for “Problem Solving in Tech Rich Environments.” The generational difference here is even starker: Americans aged 24 or younger ranked 20th, but those ages 55 and above ranked second among the 29 countries that participated in the problem-solving assessment. We seem to be replacing a relatively skilled cohort with a younger cohort that is far less internationally competitive.
The key takeaway is that the U.S. education system is leaving too many students, especially Blacks and Hispanics, with less than a basic understanding of science, technology, engineering and math. And our young students and young adults are failing to keep up with their peers across the globe.
Without improving foundational STEM skills, any edifice we build to enhance American competitiveness will be teetering on a weak foundation. And any hope of building a diverse STEM workforce will run into a supply constraint.
Warnings abound. We must do better by the next generation of Americans as they face an increasingly competitive global environment in which STEM will play a key role. This challenge is clearly the motivation behind USICA, but considering the magnitude of the crisis facing the nation, it falls short, given the need for education R&D — especially for strong applied education sciences. This is why leaving the Institute of Education Sciences, the Department of Education’s science agency, out of USICA is a mistake.
IES is moving forward more vigorously than ever to support the kinds of transformative research that is needed to put the U.S. on a stronger competitive basis. Here are four examples: We are running an XPRIZE competition to incentivize the use of digital learning systems to identify more precisely and more quickly what interventions work for which learners. We are creating networks linking ed tech entrepreneurs and researchers to identify and bring to market new products with evidence of effectiveness. We are creating a unit within the institute focused on excellence in data science applied to education. And we are about to announce the winners of our new “high risk, high reward” competition. The idea of that contest is to identify and support research projects that have the potential for transforming the way in which education research is traditionally done. These, and many other IES activities, have the overarching goal of strengthening the skills, especially in STEM, of America’s lowest-performing students. Only by doing so can we take advantage of the talents of the rising and diverse generation of Americans, talents that are needed to maintain our standing in the world.
Mark Schneider is director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education.