How the U.S. Education System Can Reclaim its Math and Science Glory


In an age of heightened global economic competition, the U.S. is falling behind in one key aspect: math and science education.

As reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of students graduating from college with a degree in engineering is at half its peak in 1985. This is a terrible figure given how much technology has contributed to our economic growth since World War II, and how dependent we are on attracting skilled immigrants from Asia, a continent that is rapidly becoming more prosperous.

The U.S. should invest resources to combat this trend. The country needs to promote a new school track guiding our most technically skilled students from their early school years to advanced science degrees and then on to professional placement.

The Department of Education already spends $175 million to improve science and math education through its Mathematics and Science Partnerships program focusing on improving teacher qualifications; $34 million in its Upward Bound Math-Science program focusing on providing counseling/mentoring services for high school students; and $18 million in its Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program to create more AP courses. 

Unfortunately, while these programs help reduce the problem, especially through providing more AP courses, they fail to create an environment where excellence in math and science can develop. Moreover, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute discovered recently that No Child Left Behind negatively affects high-achieving students by inducing teachers to focus attention on poorer-performing students, resulting in 40% of high-achieving students “descending” into lower performance brackets over time. Students who are not confident in their math and science skills are less likely to pursue advanced degrees in these areas.

To cultivate the next, larger generation of scientists, the Department of Education should encourage states to create more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-focused high schools, either as public or charter institutions. These schools would then select the best students from our intermediate schools to prepare them for advanced study at universities. The universities should be limited to local schools in order to provide incentives for states to invest in developing this track.

University curricula could also be revamped to make science education more approachable. As a New York Times article noted last November, nearly half of all engineering students drop out of the program due to a “blizzard of calculus, physics, and chemistry” in their first two years of study. Retention rates would increase if engineering programs instituted project-based learning as a way to demonstrate the practical application of theory. Service learning projects would also provide the human element students need to remember how vitally important their work is to society.

Lastly, job placement for STEM majors should be made an explicit focus of universities’ missions. Using my home state as an example, the University of Minnesota manages various university-industry partnerships run by the Vice President for Research’s Office of Sponsored Projects Administration as well as a career center specifically focused on students in the Engineering Department. While some networking likely occurs as students and businesses work together, the two programs could be combined to produce projects that both help the private sector as well as provide employment opportunities for students. This idea could be applied to many universities around the country, and may have the side benefit of reminding schools that cultivating students is their goal, not industry connections.    

This form of cultivation may raise concerns. It looks similar to Germany’s two-tier school system, whereby students are divided into a “university track” and a “trade school track” at an early age according to their academic results. However, this system is based more on subject matter than intelligence and would be voluntary.

People may also fear that this is another encroachment by the professional fields on the liberal arts, hindering schools’ ability to promote civic engagement and public service. While an important concern, creating a STEM-focused school track would not necessarily abolish the liberal arts entirely, and engineering programs could encourage public involvement through service-learning projects. 

Lastly, people may have qualms about the power of the state over the local community, as well as the efficiency of the system in general. However, the administration of the new school track system would be led at the state level. The STEM curriculum would also be far less controversial than most of the social sciences, and as for efficiency, it couldn’t be worse than our current piecemeal efforts, which see so many students fall through the cracks that most children who are interested in science and math abandon the field at an early age.  

Adopting a STEM-focused school track system would thus be an easy and effective way for our country to proactively tackle the science deficit we face. Developing our creative classes and innovation hubs is a task too important to be left alone; not unless we are willing to rely upon global forces that are unlikely to blow in our favor forever.

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