American STEM Education Needs an Overhaul

American STEM Education Needs an Overhaul

If the United States is to remain an innovation powerhouse, it must radically target deficiencies in public education. 


In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” It reflects a sensible recognition that education inherently involves securing a nation’s most fundamental interests—its security and prosperity. 

Today, as America faces potential new global conflicts, the first generation of Adams’s curriculum will need one major addition to ensure U.S. security aimed at military and economic competition: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. While the dream that every student has the potential to be the next brilliant scientist may be a costly indulgence, the reality is that there is an insufficient number of individuals studying STEM fields to maintain the United States’ forefront position in technological innovation in the years ahead. 


A recent survey by the Science & Technology Action Committee underscores this concern. In polling STEM-related workers—encompassing science, technology, engineering, and math, along with education, health care, business, military, and national security—76 percent of respondents believed that the United States either lost its global leadership in science and technology or is currently in the process of doing so. Three-fifths of respondents believe China will attain global science and technology dominance within five years. Respondents identified several obstacles to sustaining U.S. leadership in these fields, including foreign interference in research, bureaucratic red tape, the absence of a comprehensive national science and technology strategy, and inadequate funding for research and development. However, according to respondents, the primary culprit is K-12 STEM education.

Such concern is well-founded. According to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card,” the average scores of nine-year-old students experienced the first-ever drop in math, along with the biggest fall in reading in over three decades. While pandemic-related school closures are no doubt to blame here, the results would not have been impressive even without the disruptions: before the pandemic, scores in both math and reading had remained stagnant for more than fifteen years. 

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) similarly highlights America’s lackluster performance. In 2022, U.S. fifteen-year-olds scored just below the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in math and slightly above average in science. The long-term consequence will likely be a widening gap between America’s scientific and industrial capacity and China’s. While college and university degrees in STEM fields often receive more attention in the education race between the two powers, America’s lag behind China in postsecondary STEM degrees can be traced back to inadequate schooling at the K-12 level.

The strong link between education and national security is not new. Four decades ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report, A Nation at Risk, went so far as to state, “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.” More recently, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2040 report struck a similar theme, predicting that the “next decades will see increasing global competition for the core elements of technology supremacy, such as talent, knowledge, and markets, potentially resulting in new technological leaders or hegemonies.” Today, considering escalating U.S.-China tensions and increasingly unstable world order, the geopolitical imperatives behind a robust STEM talent base in the United States should be evident to educators and national security professionals alike.

Can we rely solely on importing enough scientists to meet our needs? High-skilled immigration can certainly contribute to this goal. In the case of attracting Chinese talent specifically, there is an argument to be made that we could achieve a dual benefit—reducing Chinese STEM ability while enhancing our own. However, this should only serve as a temporary measure. Apart from introducing its security risks, particularly given the role of Chinese universities in the country’s “Military-Civil Fusion” strategy, relying on imported scientific talent could become a crutch, allowing the United States to evade addressing the flaws in its education system. Similar to our approach to physical capital, aiming for complete autarky would be a serious mistake. Instead, building up our own capacity—reshoring our STEM talent—remains essential. Rather than counting on countries that have educated their citizens successfully, we should take the initiative to do so ourselves.

What can be done? Improving K-12 STEM education primarily hinges on enhancing K-12 education overall, particularly at the state level. While it might be disheartening for those seeking a quick fix through specific policies or education tactics, we cannot produce an army of astronauts and engineers out of thin air. It serves as a positive reminder to focus on fundamentals in both schools and broader education policies, such as New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s recent push for improved literacy, which will likely yield more and better STEM students over the long term. Additionally, states building on last year’s unprecedented success in implementing universal education choice programs can play a crucial role: encouraging schools to align with parents’ priorities and better education. This, in turn, will contribute to better education, including enhanced STEM education. 

That said, there are steps federal policymakers can take to enhance STEM education specifically. Firstly, it’s crucial to cease ineffective practices. The National Science Foundation and Department of Education have invested in numerous STEM and R&D projects over decades, often with limited tangible outcomes, partly because many research efforts failed to be implemented in classrooms. Congress should commission the Government Accountability Office to audit these programs, eliminating ineffective ones. To further improve transparency and accountability, Congress should mandate that the Department of Education annually report on these R&D activities, providing valuable insights for policymakers and the general public. Additionally, there is potential to expand future National Assessment of Educational Progress exams to encompass STEM achievement, going beyond literacy and math.

Meanwhile, the White House’s Committee on STEM Education, established in 2010, serves a valuable function by evaluating and coordinating the federal government’s diverse STEM education programs and formulating a unified STEM strategic plan. However, the survey results, where many respondents lamented the absence of a comprehensive strategy, underscore the existing limitation of the Committee’s efforts. To address this, the Committee should take more assertive measures to mandate improved reporting and coordination on R&D projects from federal agencies.

Just as the enhancement of STEM education should be integrated into a broader initiative to improve education as a whole, reinforcing the STEM pipeline must be part of an overarching mission to maintain the United States as the global innovation powerhouse. This is not to undermine Adams’ aspiration for his grandchildren to study art, music, and poetry. However, like the adage that preparing for war ensures peace, in today’s context, learning science is essential to secure the safety and affluence of studying art. The national security implications of education policy persist, and it is high time for our policymakers to take decisive action on them. 

Robert Bellafiore is the Research Manager at the Foundation for American Innovation. He was previously an Analyst at Baron Public Affairs and a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The American Conservative, City Journal, Modern Age, and elsewhere. He studied economics and philosophy at the University of Oklahoma.