Today, I submitted written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. Click here to download a pdf of the testimony.
Chair Shaheen, Ranking Member Moran, and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Dan Lips. I am Head of Policy at the Foundation for American Innovation, a think tank focused on promoting innovation, strengthening governance, and advancing national security. I am writing to respectfully request that you direct the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve its reporting about the outcomes of its education research and development (R&D) programs.
The mission of NSF’s Directorate for STEM Education is “to develop a well informed citizenry and a diverse and capable workforce of scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians, and educators.” NSF’s new Technology Innovation and Partnerships Directorate (TIP) has a mission to create “breakthrough technologies; meets societal and economic needs; leads to new, high-wage jobs; and empowers all Americans to participate in the U.S. research and innovation enterprise.” According to the FY2024 budget request, the STEM Education and TIP Directorates will receive $1.15 billion and $450 million respectively. These are significant expenditures on programs that have the potential to improve American students’ learning opportunities and national competitiveness.
However, my recent review of NSF-funded STEM education R&D programs found that the foundation did not have transparent reporting about R&D project outcomes or consistently identify best practices or ways that educators and others could learn from or implement research findings. I respectfully request that the Subcommittee include language in the report accompanying the FY2024 funding bill to require NSF to improve transparency by publishing the outcomes, research findings, or any lessons learned from NSF-funded research projects on its website. Moreover, I request that the Subcommittee require the Directorate for STEM Education to submit to Congress and publish on its website an annual report detailing all of its funded R&D projects, lessons learned, and best practices for education stakeholders.
Background on Current Challenges in American Education
Published 40 years ago in 1983, the seminal A Nation at Risk report issued a stark warning about the nation’s K-12 education system: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." A Nation at Risk served as a wake-up call and catalyst for the national school reform movement. Today, the challenges facing American K-12 education are even greater than they were in 1983.
The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” found that the average scores of nine-year-old students declined “5 points in reading and 7 points in mathematics compared to 2020,” which represented the largest drop in reading in more than 30 years and the first-ever decline in math. More than one in three fourth-grade students scored “below basic” in reading. The cost of the widespread and prolonged school closures is expected to have long-term costs on a generation of American students and undermine the nation’s economy. International comparisons show that U.S. students are far from leading the world in STEM achievement. For example, the White House’s STEM strategy found that as of 2018, “Americans’ basic STEM skills have modestly improved over the past two decades but continue to lag behind many other countries.”
The Missed Opportunity of Federal Education R&D
Since the 1950s, the United States government has funded federal education R&D programs aimed to improve students’ learning opportunities, expand equal opportunity, and strengthen American competitiveness, particularly in STEM education fields. My review of the history of federal education R&D programs reveals some progress, but also many missed opportunities and challenges in achieving this mission to promote STEM education excellence and improve student learning opportunities across the United States. In April 2023, Melissa Moritz and I published a research report, STEM and Computer Science Education Reforming Federal K-12 Education R&D Activities to Strengthen American Competitiveness, which found 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.
Within the National Science Foundation, there are some examples of STEM education projects that were funded by federal grants that are reportedly having a positive impact. For example, Muzology, a project funded by the Small Business Innovation Research program, has supported the development of technology and music to “support the learning of critical academic skills and concepts,” including math videos for students in grades 5 through 9. Engineering is Elementary, a program managed by the Museum of Science in Boston, involves “developing lessons to engage students in grades 1-5 in engineering activities integrated with their science lessons.” NSF provided nearly $3 million in grants from 2005 to 2008 to support the program. The program has benefited students, according to NSF-funded research evaluations. The program now offers computer science and engineering courses to elementary and middle school service for purchase on its website, as well as professional development and free STEM activities for children and families to use.
Nevertheless, NSF’s website currently provides limited information about the outcomes of most of its funded R&D projects. While the NSF website includes a database of past grant awards and current grant funding available, the Foundation could provide more insight to Congress and the public by providing an annual review of past and future STEM research projects funded, identifying lessons learned and best practices or tools that education stakeholders may use.
To improve transparency and increase the return on investment of NSF-funded education R&D projects, the Subcommittee should include in its report accompanying the FY2024 funding bill language requiring NSF to publicly report on its websites the outcomes of its education R&D projects, identify what has worked, and promote best practices that can be used by parents, teachers, schools, and other education stakeholders. Moreover, the Subcommittee should require the STEM Education and TIP Directorates to submit to Congress and publish on its website an annual report detailing all of its funded R&D projects, lessons learned, and best practices for education stakeholders.
The United States faces significant economic, educational, and national security challenges. Effective federal education R&D has the potential to improve learning opportunities for American students and national competitiveness. But current federal education R&D activities are not having the positive impact that Congress has intended, in part due to limited transparency. The nation cannot afford not to identify and share best practices that have the potential to help the nation’s students and achieve our national K-12 education goals.