In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on STEM Education: Progress and Prospects
March 15, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 1

STEM Education: Progress and Prospects

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Author: Michael J. Feuer

Editor's Note

Historians of American education will note the significance of the timing of this issue of The Bridge—almost exactly 30 years after the publication of what is considered among the most influential education policy documents of the 20th century. The rhetoric of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (NCEE 1983) captivated the public and professional worlds of schooling and played a major part in the ensuing drama of standards, assessment, and accountability that have become the pillars of reform.

A core argument in Nation at Risk centered on the convergence of two intuitively compelling assumptions. First, America’s place in the world, in terms of productivity, competitiveness, and other economic determinants of quality of life, hinges to a large extent on the strength of the scientific and technological workforce. US investments in research and development—both physical infrastructure and, even more importantly, human capital—have yielded stunning social and economic returns. There is overwhelming evidence that the American experiment in mass public education, coupled with increased public and private investment in technological innovation, was largely responsible for the unparalleled success of the US economy through much of the 20th century (see, e.g., Atkinson and Pelfrey 2010; Goldin and Katz 2008).

Second, among the most important ingredients of America’s long-term stature, especially in an era of global technological change, is the quality of US education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), starting in the early grades and extending well beyond the traditional postsecondary years. On this point, too, there is little debate: precollege experiences of this country’s increasingly diverse student body, in general and specifically in the STEM fields, are the foundation for their capacity as productive, innovative, and technologically competitive citizens. How well US colleges and universities and workplaces will be able to maintain and grow their research and development capacity depends, to a great degree, on the sustained flow of prepared youth.

If the rhetoric of Nation at Risk was gripping—who can forget the unfiltered warning that “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”—the connections between diagnosis and prescription were, and remain, logically and empirically challenging. Consider the implicit proposition that economic competitiveness is principally a function of academic achievement, as measured mostly by test scores. From the earliest days of US involvement in international comparisons of student achievement, the United States has fared poorly (see, e.g., Medrich and Griffith 1992): in the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS) in 1964, the United States ranked at the bottom among 12 countries in the test performance of 13-year-olds and of students in the last year of secondary school. (The “golden age” romanticism of some policy pundits, who like to argue that America was once number one in the world but is no longer, is obviously put to the test by these early results; see also Feuer 2012; Loveless 2011.) Assuming these students entered the labor force some time in the following decade and assuming that their academic achievement was a significant determinant of their subsequent productivity, one would have expected to see, during the 1970s and beyond, substantial differences in aggregate economic performance between the United States and the other countries that participated in FIMS.

It is true that in the mid-1970s the United States experienced a temporary annual decline in productivity growth (an essential indicator of broad economic trends), from an average of 2.5 percent in the 1960s to 1.9 percent in the next decade (Baumol et al. 1989; Feuer 2012; Williamson 1991). In itself, this would seem to indicate a causal link between low test scores and sluggish economic performance. But the data are more complex. In that period—comparing the 1960s to the 1970s—the countries that outperformed the United States on FIMS experienced similar or worse declines in average annual productivity than the United States. England, for example, ranked second on FIMS in mathematics for students in their final year of secondary school but saw its average annual productivity growth rate drop from 3.56 in the 1960s to 2.77 in the 1970s.

An even more startling comparison is between the United States and Japan: for the latter, which ranked 6th in FIMS, average productivity growth plummeted from 9.96 percent per annum in the 1960s to 5.03 percent in the 1970s (Baumol et al. 1989; Williamson 1991), an almost 50 percent decrease, compared with the US decline of about 30 percent. All else equal, the temptation to attribute national economic stagnation (or growth) to mean academic performance on standardized achievement tests would have led to the conclusion that American education was, in fact, superior to Japanese education.

Obviously, neither the dismal news about US ranking on FIMS nor the uplifting news about US economic resiliency compared to other countries would be valid without a host of caveats. Problems associated with sampling, population participation, and linguistic barriers to test item development and scores (see Medrich and Griffith 1992), especially in the early years of large-scale international comparative work, should have tempered the gloomier rhetoric. But progress in the design and interpretation of comparative assessments has made them an essential part of education policy analysis. And even if the tendency to lurch toward policy prescriptions somewhat prematurely, based on data that require more nuanced interpretation, is a fact of political life, that should not dissuade investment in and careful study of cross-national data—especially those relevant to STEM education at all levels (see also Engel et al. 2012; Feuer 2013).

In the current political environment, the condition of STEM education and its relationships to broad educational and economic trends retain a central and legitimate place in the policy agenda, and are the subjects of the articles prepared for this issue.

We begin with a basic question: To what extent do data support the hypothesis that either US science and engineering capacity has declined or, given current conditions of precollege science and mathematics instruction, such a decline is inevitable? Embedded in this question are familiar tropes from recent reports and headline news; the influential National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm (NAS/NAE/IOM 2007, p. x), for example, noted that some 40 percent of scientists reported to Congress that American science was “in a stall” and 60 percent asserted it was already “in decline.”

But both the underlying data upon which the National Academies diagnosis was based and the ensuing policy recommendation—to vastly increase the quantity of young people prepared for and entering postsecondary STEM—have been subject to debate. The first two papers in this issue address the following questions: What is known about the condition of precollege STEM education in the United States compared to our global competitors? What are the effects of the American penchant for a diffused and perhaps inchoate science and mathematics curriculum, as compared to countries with tighter control over the scope and substance of curricula? How valid is the assertion that American science and engineering are in decline? To what extent do the data support anxieties about the “leaky pipeline”—the notion that many young people who express interest in and begin studying STEM subjects switch out during their academic career? And to what extent does such a drop-off portend significant losses in terms of unmet supply of talent for the global and technologically changing economy?

The opening paper presents an eloquent overview of seminal empirical work associated with William Schmidt and colleagues, who have for decades been studying US science and mathematics performance at the K–12 level, with emphasis on comparisons drawn from large-scale international assessments and in-depth curriculum and teaching studies. The authors present compelling arguments for their hypothesis that the US “mile-wide-but-inch-deep” approach to science education is a major cause of this country’s relatively low performance on international tests. The second paper, by Sasha Killewald and Yu Xie, expands some of the issues raised in their recent book, Is American Science in Decline? (Xie and Killewald 2012), and calls for a balanced prognosis based on analysis of multiple data sources.

We then move to a question that is sometimes ignored or underemphasized in the debate on the condition of STEM education in America. Suppose for argument’s sake that available indicators suggested that US STEM education was in reasonably good shape and that, from the standpoint of national economic need, the supply of talent was not at risk. Note that I am not advocating quite this degree of optimism or complacency; my point, rather, is to direct attention to the need for disaggregation: To what extent are minorities and women adequately and equitably represented in the nation’s STEM enterprise? Does evidence of underrepresentation pose problems of equity in the distribution of opportunity and efficiency in fulfilling the country’s future STEM needs? In other words, does the imperative to correct inequalities in the US education system, a goal worthy in its own right, converge with the need to fulfill increased demand for scientists and engineers to maintain America’s competitive edge in the global economy?

Two papers address these issues. The first, by Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux and Shirley Malcom, focuses on institutional mechanisms to improve STEM education for women and underrepresented minorities. Building on data and assumptions about precollege preparedness, the authors identify promising programmatic options for colleges and universities to consider as they attempt to raise the proportion of minority and female students entering into and persisting in STEM majors. The second article, by Liliana Garces and Lorelle Espinosa, addresses a key aspect of the policy environment: the effects of law and changing jurisprudence on programs designed to increase opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities. Both papers establish a strong basis for understanding—and shaping—the link between K–12 and postsecondary STEM education.

One of the historically persistent challenges of education policy has been to reconcile compelling arguments for a national ethos about schools and schooling with America’s deep-seated cultural and political allergy to centralized authority (see, e.g., Cremin 1990; Feuer 2006; Vinovskis 1999). Against this backdrop, the achievement of the “Common Core State Standards” is all the more stunning. This project, originating in the states (with federal government and private sector blessing), represents the latest attempt to solve the fundamental “e pluribus unum” problem in American education. It began in 2009 with the goal of designing standards in mathematics and in English/language arts, has been voluntarily adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, and has now been extended to science and engineering education thanks to the work of the NRC’s Board on Science Education.

With support from several enlightened philanthropies and the National Academies, the Board developed a “framework” that is now being used as the foundation for the crafting of the Next Generation Science Standards—coming almost 20 years after the pioneering NRC Science Standards (NRC 1996)—for K–12 science education. The article by Heidi Schweingruber and her colleagues chronicles the procedural and substantive challenges—and successes—of this initiative. Experts will debate the pros and cons of the standards movement generally and of science frameworks/standards specifically; but there is no question in my mind that the caliber and expertise of those involved and their consummate devotion to the cause of improving STEM education for all US students at all levels should be a source of great optimism.

Our main goal in this issue is not to “solve” the problems of STEM education. That would exceed the bounds of our rationality (and humility). Rather, we hope to stimulate an ongoing dialogue, based on and guided by careful analysis of data, among policymakers and institutional leaders working on reform. If we have raised questions here about the quality of existing data, the need for more and better data, and priority topics for a sustained research agenda, so much the better. I am immensely grateful to Ron Latanision for his wise decision to focus this (and the next) issue of The Bridge on education, and to Cameron Fletcher for superb editorial guidance. The authors of these papers and I hope that our efforts will be appreciated—and debated—by readers of The Bridge, and we very much look forward to the conversation as it unfolds.


Atkinson R, Pelfrey P. 2010. Science and the Entrepreneurial University. Research and Occasional Paper Series: CSHE 9.10, University of California, Berkeley. Available online at id=361.

Baumol W, Batey Blackman SA, Wolff EN. 1989. Productivity and American Leadership: The Long View. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Cremin L. 1990. Popular Education and Its Discontents. New York: Harper and Row.

Engel L, Williams J, Feuer M. 2012. The Global Context of Practice and Preaching: Do High-Scoring Countries Practice What US Discourse Preaches? Graduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University, Working Paper 2.3, April. Available online at Paper Series/WPS2.3_Engel Williams Feuer_web.pdf.

Feuer M. 2006. Moderating the Debate. Cambridge MA: Harvard Education Press.

Feuer M. 2012. No Country Left Behind: Rhetoric and Reality of International Large Scale Assessment. Educational Testing Service: William Angoff Memorial Lecture. Available online at

Feuer M. 2013. International large-scale assessments: Validity in presentation and use. In Chadhabi M, ed. Validity Issues in International Large Scale Assessment. New York: Routledge (forthcoming).

Garces LM, Espinosa LL. 2013. Promoting access to undergraduate STEM education: The legal and policy environment. The Bridge 43(1):34–42.

Goldin C, Katz L. 2008. The Race Between Education and Technology. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press.

Killewald A, Xie Y. 2013. American science education in its global and historical contexts. The Bridge 43(1):15–23.

Loveless T. 2011. The 2010 Brown Center report on American education. Washington: Brookings Institution. Available online at www.brookingsedu/reports/2011/0207_education_loveless. aspx.

Malcom-Piqueux LE, Malcom SM. 2013. Engineering diversity: Fixing the educational system to promote equity. The Bridge 43(1):24–33.

Medrich E, Griffith J. 1992. International Mathematics and Science Assessments: What Have We Learned? Washington: US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics.

NAS/NAE/IOM [National Academy of Sciences/National Academy of Engineering/Institute of Medicine]. 2007. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington: National Academies Press. Available online at

NCEE [National Commission on Excellence in Education]. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington: Government Printing Office. April.

NRC [National Research Council]. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington: National Academy Press. Available online at

Schmidt WH, Burroughs NA, Cogan LS. 2013. On the road to reform: K–12 science education in the United States. The Bridge 43(1):7–14.

Schweingruber HA, Quinn H, Keller TW, Pearson G. 2013. A framework for K–12 science education: Looking toward the future of science education. The Bridge 43(1):43–50.

Vinovskis M. 1999. The Road to Charlottesville: The 1989 Education Summit. Washington: National Education Goals Panel.

Williamson J. 1991. Productivity and American leadership: A review article. Journal of Economic Literature 29:51–68.

Xie Y, Killewald A. 2012. Is American Science in Decline? Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.


* Michael J. Feuer worked at the National Research Council (NRC) from 1993 to 2010. As Director of the Board on Testing and Assessment, Director of the Center for Education, and finally Executive Director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, he was responsible for many NRC reports on education, testing, standards, and the application of social and behavioral sciences to public policy. He had no direct involvement in the NRC science frameworks project, the preceding National Science Standards project, or the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm cited in this issue.

About the Author:Michael J. Feuer is Dean and professor of education policy at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University.*