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Improving elementary and secondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education has been a long-standing priority for national security and American competitiveness. Today, the United States faces new challenges focusing national attention on the need to improve STEM education including computer science. Widespread school closures during the pandemic caused historic learning losses and stifled American students’ academic achievement. Renewed great power conflict has reenergized national concerns about American competitiveness. New technological innovations offer exciting possibilities, but also raise questions about the current and future readiness of the American workforce, especially in disciplines such as computer science, data science, and other emerging technology fields.
Since the 1950s, the United States has sought to improve STEM education to strengthen American economic and national security. Investing in federal education research and development has been a focus of these efforts. While elementary and secondary education remain largely decentralized in the United States, the federal government has sought to promote excellence in STEM fields by funding research and supporting the development of initiatives to improve STEM education, including by training teachers.
This paper reviews current federal STEM education initiatives—specifically, federal education R&D programs aimed at improving K-12 STEM (including computer science) education. According to the White House’s Committee on STEM Education, the federal government spent $3.9 billion annually on STEM education programs in 2021. Altogether, the federal government is spending roughly $2 billion on federal education R&D, statistical collection, and related activities, some of which support improving STEM and computer science education and were counted in the $3.9 billion spent annually on STEM.
Our analysis of federal STEM education and education R&D programs shows that there is significant federal activity aimed at improving STEM education and national competitiveness. However, consistent with past reviews of these federal initiatives, it remains unclear whether and to what extent these initiatives are advancing national goals. For example, most federal education R&D projects focused on improving STEM education have not been effectively analyzed and reported on to identify potential lessons learned and promote best practices for education stakeholders.
Some federal education R&D activities appear to be having a positive impact on student learning across the United States, including in STEM subjects, such as technology projects funded through the Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program or Education Innovation and Research Program. Another bright spot has been utilizing R&D investments from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education’s Education Innovation and Research grant program to specifically support computer science. However, more could be done to increase transparency about the return on investment of education R&D programs, to identify evidence-based best practices, and to focus these education R&D investments on particular STEM disciplines such as computer science and data science to see even greater outcomes.
To improve national competitiveness as well as achievement and access in STEM education fields, the Biden administration and Congress should take steps to improve coordination, increase transparency about federal education R&D investments and their outcomes, and better monitor the condition of STEM education in the United States. We recommend the following:
- The Committee on STEM education should update its five-year strategic plan to require federal agencies to improve reporting about STEM and computer science education R&D projects, strengthen coordination among agencies on STEM education projects to increase efficiency, establish metrics, and evaluate program effectiveness. The Committee should also require interagency coordination among the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and other agencies to leverage STEM education R&D investments.
- The Department of Education should annually report findings and lessons learned from its education R&D activities and make this information available to other agencies, Congress, and the public. The Department of Education should leverage the Institute of Education Sciences’ data collection capabilities and authorities to monitor access to STEM and computer science learning opportunities for American students. The Department of Education should also expand future National Assessment of Educational Progress exams to include STEM and computer science achievement assessments. The Institute of Education Sciences should conduct a meta-analysis of each of the STEM and computer science disciplines to ensure the evidence base is well understood and enable the development of additional practice guides and tools to improve STEM and computer science using the available evidence base.
- The National Science Foundation should improve its transparency about the return on investment of funded STEM education projects and to make lessons learned or tools more broadly available to education stakeholders.
- Congress should conduct oversight to better understand federal STEM education activities and federal education R&D projects.