government remains on an unsustainable fiscal path. The United States faces rising international competition from great power rivals. And American students have suffered historic learning losses following prolonged public school closures that occurred during the pandemic.
For more than half a century, improving American students’ competitiveness in STEM education has been viewed as an economic, national security, and educational imperative. But national and international test scores show that many American students are not proficient in mathematics and science, and that they are behind many of their peers in developed nations. The United States also lags behind the People’s Republic of China in the number of STEM postsecondary degrees awarded.
As I explained last year in a report for Lincoln Network, the federal government has sought to improve STEM education by funding research and development initiatives aimed at identifying, developing, and scaling promising instructional models, programs, and other interventions to improve American students’ learning opportunities. These activities hold great promise for improving STEM education. However, the history of federal education R&D involves many missed opportunities and unclear evidence about the utility of federal R&D programs.
One way to improve the nation’s return on investment from federal education R&D activities would be to improve the Department of Education’s and other federal agencies’ reporting on their analysis of and outcomes from funded R&D projects. Based on publicly available information published on federal agency websites, it is unclear whether federal education R&D projects were successful in improving students’ learning opportunities. In addition, if past or current federal education R&D programs focused on STEM or computer science education have been successful, it is not clear what, if any, best practices or lessons learned can be implemented by schools, teachers, parents, and other education stakeholders.
In its 2023 STEM Strategic Plan, the Committee on STEM Education has an opportunity to require federal agencies to improve the value and return on investment from education R&D activities.
- The Committee should require federal agencies, including the Department of Education and National Science Foundation, to publish assessments of federally funded STEM education R&D projects and publicly report annually on these activities to identify lessons learned and potential best practices, highlighting lessons learned for stakeholders.
- The Committee should also require the Department of Education, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, and other federal agencies to improve coordination of federal education R&D activities.
- The Committee should include in its annual report a summary budget for STEM education R&D expenditures and a summary of any outcomes from these programs. In addition, the budget should detail what expenditures were made for science, math, engineering, technology, and computer science education R&D initiatives by subject or focus area.
- Finally, the Committee should identify opportunities to improve statistical collection and national assessments regarding American students’ STEM education learning opportunities and academic achievement. For example, the Committee should direct the Department of Education to leverage the Institute of Education Sciences’ data collection to survey STEM education in American elementary and secondary education. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics should survey access to STEM and computer science courses and teachers in elementary and secondary schools to identify potential gaps and opportunities to improve equity and access. In addition, the Department of Education should consider including additional STEM and computer science assessments through the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Federal education research and development activities have the potential to significantly improve American students’ academic achievement in STEM and computer science subjects and thereby improve national competitiveness. However, the federal government’s current reporting about past and existing federal education R&D expenditures is unlikely to spur significant improvement if the findings from these projects are not analyzed, reported on, and broadly shared. Improving transparency about federal education R&D projects is a simple but necessary step to improving American STEM education.