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STEM Talent Crisis Represents Threat to U.S. Leadership on Science and Technology

May 29, 2024 | Science & Technology Action Committee

With quality K-12 STEM education lacking, U.S. risks falling behind on global stage

U.S. test scores for elementary and high school students in key STEM skills, such as science and math, have lagged behind those of many other countries for years. Now, a series of recently released national and global analyses of K-12 test scores paints a particularly grim picture on one of the most important skills the U.S. needs for the STEM workforce of the future: math.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows elementary and secondary student math performance has continued on a downward trend, with a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic students. In addition, the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which examines global standardized test scores of teens living in the 37 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), shows that while the U.S. ranks above average in science, it remains below average in math.

Combined, the two assessments reveal a stark truth: The U.S. is falling behind, leaving the door open for other nations to take the reins in global competitiveness.

“The issue of talent is alarming,” Dario Gil, senior vice president and director of research at IBM and a member of STAC, said at a recent Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) event. “The success of [U.S. innovation] relies on the U.S. having the best talent in the world focused on STEM.”

The Science & Technology Action Committee’s (STAC) State of Science in America report found that workers in five key sectors — including K-12 educators — agree that the top obstacle to advancing science and technology in the U.S. is the quality of K-12 STEM education. As other nations, including China, double down on investments in STEM education, the U.S. risks handing over leadership — both in this critical area and on the wider global playing field.

We can’t let that happen.

That’s why it’s critical for the U.S. to develop a national science and technology strategy that ramps up federal funding for K-12 STEM education, with a particular focus on equity in implementing these investments. This step is essential to build a future domestic STEM workforce that will advance U.S. innovation and bolster economic and national security for decades to come. Doing so will secure U.S. leadership in science and technology and ensure that future scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs happen here in the U.S., not overseas.

The State of Science in America Report found tremendous support for increasing federal funding to improve STEM education at all levels. Among the many steps worth considering for K-12, ensuring every student has a laptop and internet access at home, expanding curricula, and providing support and resources to teachers to unleash creativity can all help drive interest in STEM among young learners.

“A robust and concerted effort to address our nation’s STEM talent crisis is critical for the United States to lean fully into its longstanding strategic approaches, thus ensuring it remains a global S&E discovery powerhouse,” the National Science Board wrote in a recent policy brief. “Dramatically and quickly improving the STEM education trajectories for over 54 million primary and secondary school students is essential.”

Today, it’s clear that Congress must increase funding for K-12 STEM education — or risk the U.S. losing ground on the science and technology advances with the power to reshape the nation — and the world.

The Science & Technology Action Committee (STAC) is a group of 25 non-profit, academic, foundation, and corporate leaders working to dramatically strengthen U.S. science and technology. The Committee is co-chaired by: Bill Novelli, Professor Emeritus and founder of Business for Impact at Georgetown University and former CEO of AARP, Sudip Parikh, CEO, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Executive Publisher of the Science Family of Journals, Mary Woolley, President & CEO of Research!America, and Keith Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy at UCSF and President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).