The U.S. Should Strengthen STEM Education to Remain Globally Competitive

By: Gabrielle Athanasia and Jillian Cota

The United States needs to reinvigorate its STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education system if it is to compete successfully in the 21st century. STEM proficiency has been declining in America since the 1980s, threatening the nation’s continued technological leadership. Particularly as emerging technologies such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI) are set to put STEM proficient nations on the highway to innovation-based competitiveness, the U.S. cannot afford to fall behind.

America’s national security, which is tightly coupled with its economic competitiveness abroad, requires strong capability in STEM fields. But with fewer students choosing to pursue degrees in STEM subjects, experts fear a looming shortage of skilled STEM educators. They call for renewed investment in the nation’s STEM education system.

Early STEM education provides the necessary foundation for those pursuing degrees and careers in the field later on. STEM education centers around programs designed to help students gain skills required to succeed in the innovation-focused twenty-first century job market. Typically, this includes critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, adaptability, and digital literacy- all important for future careers. However, many students lack the resources and opportunities to pursue a career in the STEM field, and even earlier on, students across the country are not receiving adequate education in these subjects to begin with.
The U.S. Is Lagging in STEM

The U.S. is falling behind in STEM proficiency compared to other leading countries. The 2019 Trends in International and Mathematics Science Study, which tests international students at the fourth and eighth grade-levels, ranked U.S. fourth grade students fifteenth among the sixty-four participating education systems in average mathematics score. For eighth grade students, the average mathematics score ranked eleventh among the forty-six participating education systems. The countries that ranked ahead of the U.S. included Singapore, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.  

What is more, most Americans rate their own STEM education system as below par. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 29% of Americans rated the country’s K-12 STEM education as above average.
Limitations of STEM Education in K-12

Early STEM education at the K-12 level is important for creating a foundation for later academic development, preparing children for jobs of the future, and nurturing positive attitudes about STEM. However, the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a standardized test administered to K-12 students across the U.S. every two years, found only 41% of fourth and eighth grade students and 21% of twelfth grade students could be considered “proficient” in mathematics. In 2015, the NAEP found 38% of fourth grade students, 34% of eighth grade students, and 22% of twelfth grade students could be considered “proficient” in science. Based on the data, proficiency levels decrease as students progress through the education system.
Barriers to STEM Education

Cost and Time: In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the most cited reason among young adults for not pursuing STEM degrees or careers was cost and time barriers. The extremely high costs of attending university in the U.S. inhibits many students from pursuing a degree at all. In fact, after earning a high school degree, many students opt to enter the workforce immediately, lacking the time and funds it would take to pursue a college degree.

Lack of Access: Lack of STEM access is a critical equity issue in education, particularly among many in urban and rural communities where students do not have access to an adequate high school-level math and science curriculum. In fact, across the U.S., more than half of high schools do not offer calculus, four out of ten do not offer physics, more than one in four do not offer chemistry, and more than one in five do not offer Algebra II (a gateway class for STEM success in college).

Qualified Instruction: Across the U.S. there is a shortage in supply of qualified STEM teachers. For students to reach higher academic standards and pursue eventual careers in STEM, American schools need better-prepared and well-qualified instructors. In fact, 74% of students successfully graduating with a degree in STEM identified poor instruction early on as a major barrier to success.

It has been shown that teachers carrying a subject-specific degree had a more positive effect on student achievement in both mathematics and science, but about 28% of U.S. public school teachers hired for science in grades 7-12 do not hold a degree (or even a minor) in the sciences or science education. Furthermore, a 2008 study showed that 40% of mathematics classes in high-poverty schools across the U.S. were taught by teachers without a degree in the subject. In fact, schools with the fewest lower-income students tend to have higher percentages of STEM classes taught by teachers with degrees in STEM. 
Impacts of the STEM Gap

Income Disparities: These barriers create a STEM gap that excludes many students from future opportunities for high-paying jobs in growing twenty-first century industries. Today there are significant pay discrepancies between STEM and non-STEM careers. Recent data shows that the median annual wage for non-STEM careers is $38,160, while the median wage for careers in STEM is $86,980. The inequality in access to STEM courses at the earliest stages of K-12 education exacerbates the broader, nation-wide issues in pay discrepancy.

Skilled Labor Shortages: The STEM gap is also creating an imbalance in labor markets, a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of Americans have lost or quit jobs in recent times, with the STEM fields seeing the largest declines. While 30% of current job openings are in STEM fields in most large metropolitan areas, on average, only 11% of the U.S. population has a degree in STEM. With not enough workers in the U.S. qualified for the highly skilled jobs in STEM fields, firms will have to offshore or further automate production.

Economic Growth: The STEM gap will negatively impact growth over the long term as well. The nation’s economic and scientific leadership will fall behind unless we prepare students to become researchers and teachers capable of educating future generations of STEM students.
The Current Policy Response

If the U.S. is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology, economic projections show there is a need for approximately one million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade. If the U.S. continues to lag in STEM education and fails to retain students pursuing STEM studies, the American work force will lack the vital skills it needs to compete globally. To begin tackling this issue, in January of 2022, Rep. Hayes and Rep. McKinley introduced the Supporting STEM Learning Opportunities Act (H.R. 6521). This bill is aimed at providing increased funding to STEM education to develop a robust homegrown workforce, provide students with experiential learning programs, and build the STEM workforce pipeline for young women and students of color. Legislation such as this is a step in the right direction towards mitigating the gaps in the STEM workforce and the country’s continued innovation process.

Gabrielle Athanasia is a Program Coordinator and Research Assistant with the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Jillian Cota is a research intern with the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Perspectives on Innovation Blog is produced by the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Gabrielle Athanasia

Gabrielle Athanasia

Former Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Renewing American Innovation Project