State Of U.S. Education: No More American Brainiacs?

The United States is falling short in its production of brainiacs, according to a report provided by the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee. Well, it didn’t call them brainiacs, but that’s what it meant. Specifically, America ranks poorly in comparison with other industrialized countries in STEM-related fields: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Even allowing for vast differences in population size, diversity, and industrial policies, the United States is falling dangerously behind in several measures of STEM preparedness, according to the report. For example, Canada, Mexico, and Germany each graduate a larger proportion of students holding STEM degrees than the United States.

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The Decline of American Exceptionalism

The USA ranks a mediocre 23rd among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for the number of STEM graduates among 25 to 34-year-old workers. Performance among American students on standardized tests suggests that the problem occurs long before individuals enter the workforce. For example, American 15-year-olds rank 25th in math and 17th in science among students in OECD nations according to a report issued by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  In the OECD study cited above, American 15-year-olds ranked a disappointing 24th among students from 29 countries — including New Zealand, Hungary, Poland, Spain and the Czech Republic.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the quality of its math and science education, and 27th among developed nations in the proportion of students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering. More international students than Americans are enrolled in U.S. graduate schools. Fully two-thirds of students receiving doctoral degrees in engineering from U.S. universities are non-citizens.

American Workers and the World Economy

With these dire statistics, it’s difficult to envision American workers competing successfully in an increasingly technology-driven world economy. This is especially true given that seven of the ten projected fastest-growing occupations are in STEM-related fields. Between 2000 and 2010, STEM occupations grew 8 percent, with an expected growth of 17 percent between 2010 and 2010. STEM-educated workers earn 26 percent higher salaries than their non-STEM counterparts. In fact, 16 of the 25 highest-paying jobs require a STEM background, according to the Level Playing Field Institute.

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What Can Be Done?

A report to the U.S. Congress prepared by the Joint Economic Committee made it clear that there was no silver bullet to solve this challenge. Instead, the report stressed that the U.S. must employ a multifaceted approach that encourages innovation. This cannot happen in an atmosphere of slashed research and development budgets or an absence of incentives for businesses to embrace innovation.  Also, at least 23 states have implemented deep cuts in educational spending from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.  Science education is especially vulnerable to cuts since science scores are not tested under the No Child Left Behind mandate.

The report also report stressed the need for continued legislative and financial support for initiatives such as the America COMPETES Act and the Life Sciences Jobs and Investment Act. Additionally, improving K-12 STEM education will not yield fruitful results if college is unaffordable or out of reach for a majority of students.  Bringing the cost of college within reach includes maintaining federal support for Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid, along with focusing on providing the opportunity for young people to obtain STEM-oriented training in programs that don’t necessarily lead to a bachelor’s or post-graduate degree.

In other words, a comprehensive solution will take time. And time is running out.

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