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A Federal Investment in STEM Education

May 21, 2024 New Classrooms

The Key to Unlocking the New Generation of Innovators


On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik I – the first artificial satellite – into space. While it orbited Earth for just a mere 98 minutes, it set off a chain of reactions in the United States that would reverberate for years to come. This included a significant investment and overhaul of the public education system through the National Defense Education Act in order to create a pipeline of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers that was capable of winning the Space Race.

Nearly 75 years later, our country now finds itself at a similar crossroads. Rising global superpowers like China are rapidly advancing the development of semiconductor technology that could threaten our economic and national security. That’s why Congress and President Biden worked on bipartisan legislation to pass the CHIPS and Science Act in 2022 – a bold investment in American jobs, supply chains, and overall national competitiveness in a growing global economy.

Our Current Math Problem

Just like efforts in the 1950s to focus on cultivating future scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, the CHIPS and Science Act authorized several provisions to strengthen and expand K-12 STEM education in the U.S. It signaled an overall commitment to ensure that all schools provide rigorous, high-quality mathematics and science coursework that is accessible and engaging for students. Elementary and secondary education in mathematics in particular is the foundation for student participation in postsecondary STEM majors and a wide variety of STEM-related occupations. 

However – nearly two years on – many of the K-12 provisions from CHIPS have yet to be implemented or fully funded, and math scores on recent national assessments show just how needed they are. The recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) recorded a 13-point drop in math for U.S. students who now rank 28th out of 37 participating countries.

Unfinished learning for students in math has always been particularly acute. That is because of the subject’s cumulative nature: the skills a student masters in one year are foundational for mastering more advanced topics later. For students who fall behind, this approach can cause learning gaps to accumulate, making it harder for them to catch back up. These struggles are particularly evident as a student ages and are more prone to falling further behind as materials become increasingly complex.

Addressing these learning gaps is critical, as research shows that students who complete Algebra I by ninth grade are twice as likely to graduate from high school and more likely to attain a well-paying job. Additionally, the Hoover Institute estimates that learning loss caused by the pandemic – seen most severely in math – could result in GDP averaging almost two percent lower every year for the rest of this century.

What Can Be Done?

In order to fully meet our new Sputnik moment, we need to ensure that students can truly succeed to become the next generation of innovators. This will require the federal government to follow through on the commitment it made by passing the CHIPS and Science Act to provide adequate funding and federal coordination to develop and implement promising new K-12 STEM education approaches to teaching and learning for our students. Systemic policy change can be promoted through these four interconnected priorities:

  • Pass and fully fund the New Essential Education Discoveries (NEED) Act: Currently, there is no entity in the federal government that is responsible solely for the development – not just the research – of new approaches to teaching and learning. The NEED Act was introduced by Reps. Bonamici and Fitzpatrick in the House of Representatives and Sens. Bennet and Cornyn in the Senate to create a new center at the Institute of Education Sciences: the National Center for the Advanced Development in Education (NCADE). Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NCADE would fund projects developed by innovative organizations selected on their potential to create dramatic breakthroughs and improve student outcomes in STEM education. The center would also be required to share best practices and undertake periodic assessments on the center’s effectiveness.
  • Pass and fully fund the Developing and Advancing Innovative Learning Models Act: This legislation was recently introduced by Representative Joe Morelle to create a sustained federal investment to support the development of new ILMs, the organizational capacity of model providers, and the adoption of ILMs by states and LEAs. ILMs are bundles of integrated tools, resources, systems, and teaching practices that enable schools to provide individual students with an educational program that is individualized and responsive to their needs. These models – an example of what could be funded through a new center such as NCADE – have the potential to create a transformative impact and help students get back on track, particularly in subjects with a cumulative nature like math.
  • Create and fully fund the Centers for Transformative Education Research and Translation: The CHIPs and Sciences Act authorized these centers to allow for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to make grant awards to “support research and development on scaling, practices, partnerships, and alternative approaches” in K-12 education as well as implement “promising, evidence-based STEM education practices, models, programs, curriculum, and technologies.” Congress needs to provide the necessary funding to create the initial infrastructure at NSF to ensure STEM education discoveries and tools, such as innovative learning models, can be translated into real solutions for learners.
  • Ensure Stronger Coordination between Federal Agencies to Build A Robust Education R&D Ecosystem: At present, partnerships between learning science research and the development of solutions in STEM education are woefully lacking. To truly enable and bolster partnerships that ultimately improve teaching and learning – particularly in math – the federal government needs the authority and resources to address this mismatch and build a more robust R&D infrastructure. Standing up NCADE and CTERTs provides a valuable opportunity to provide more touch points across the agencies that better support the implementation and scaling of education tools currently being researched and developed elsewhere in the federal education R&D ecosystem.

Passing the CHIPs and Science Act was a momentous step toward recognizing that K-12 education is a lynchpin to building resiliency in our workforce amidst rapid change. It’s time to deliver on that promise.