Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s leading chip manufacturer, is delaying plans for a new factory in Arizona, citing difficulty hiring skilled workers. The news is a disappointment for national leaders who backed the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act, which aimed to accelerate semiconductor manufacturing in the United States. It’s also more evidence that the national security and competitiveness of the United States require education reforms to establish a talent pipeline for high-skilled jobs.
To that end, the Aspen Institute last week released a report, “Re-Engineering American Security: Cultivating Talent for Competitiveness,” which I signed, providing recommendations aimed to promote innovation through education:
The United States must improve its STEM education specifically for the following reasons:  The workforce needs and opportunities in STEM fields are growing rapidly, and STEM jobs are critical for our innovation ecosystem.  This ecosystem boosts our GDP, bolsters our economic security, and underpins our national competitiveness.  Our national security and defense rely on having critical thinkers on the front lines of technical disciplines like AI, semiconductors, and quantum computing, which are directly relevant to developing the most advanced weapons systems.
The report includes a range of worthy education reform strategies (such as engaging the national security to advocate for reforms and pursuing legislation through NDAA) and proposals (such as creating new pathways for STEM teachers, strengthening National Science Foundation programs, better sharing and utilizing National Assessment of Educational Progress data, and expanding apprenticeship programs).
A standout theme of the report is the need to strengthen and better leverage federal education research and development programs to encourage innovation and promote STEM education access and achievement in K-12 schools.
Melissa Moritz of the Federation of American Scientists and I made a similar point in our report published earlier this year, which analyzed federal education R&D programs focused on improving STEM and computer science education. Like the Aspen report, our report argued that American security and competitiveness require innovation that can be achieved through R&D, and highlighted many examples of federal initiatives that hold promise for improving student learning in key subject areas. But we also identified opportunities for improvement:
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.
We argued for several reforms to improve the return on investment from federal education R&D programs, including improving transparency, sharing findings, and strengthening coordination across federal agencies. As participants in the Alliance for Learning Innovation, we have also called for prioritizing the development aspect of R&D. Rather than simply funding research that could inform teaching and how students learn, government funding should fund projects that create new tools or programs that actually improve how children learn.
There’s some encouraging evidence that Congress is moving in that direction. In the Senate Appropriations Committee’s report for the new Commerce, Science, Justice and Related Agencies funding bill, the Committee included a provision encouraging the National Science Foundation to establish a new program authorized by the CHIPS and Science law. The “Centers for Transformative Education Research and Translation,” according to the Committee’s report, “could instrument large-scale digital learning platforms, enable multi-stakeholder partnerships of institutes of higher education and State and local education agencies to support collaborative research and translation in K-12 STEM education innovation.” Further, the Committee encouraged NSF to partner with the Department of Education and consider how the centers could help address learning losses.
Congress should examine other federal education R&D programs funded within NSF and the Department of Education, including by conducting oversight, and prioritize those programs that actually have the potential to help children learn. For example, the Senate HELP Committee should consider how to increase the return on investment from education R&D as it considers the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act.
While the American K-12 education system needs broad reforms to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education and to ensure national competitiveness, increasing the return on investment from federal R&D spending is one area that should attract bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.