Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Will the U.S. Remain a Leader in a Science- and Technology-Driven Economy?


Source: League of Women Voters

Education in science, technology and engineering leads to strong, innovative future generations. Scientists and educators (probably rightly) credit the U.S.'s global leadership to advances in these fields. While American science may be strong, math and science proficiency will be critical for maintaining that position, and reports are less certain on the strength of our schools.

Thus, a pressing question for the 2012 election season is how presidential candidates and Congress members will tackle education. Indeed, this question is one of 14 posed to the presidential candidates—President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney—and one of eight questions posed to 32 leaders in Congress. The questions are part of an effort led by to learn where candidates stand on science and technology issues. Scientific American has partnered with, and this post continues our ongoing series to examine each of the 14 questions. We encourage you to discuss each question in the comments. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the fifth question below regarding the future of science, technology, engineering and math education in the U.S.

Question #5 Education: Increasingly the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, and average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the past three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science- and technology-driven global economy?

A 2010 Georgetown University report projected job and education requirements and determined that the U.S. will need 22 million new college degrees by 2018 but will fail to reach that number by about three million. Of the 101 million projected jobs requiring a postsecondary education, eight million are in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Although more jobs demand a postsecondary degree, many high school students still are not prepared for college. In 2011 just one in four high school graduates met the College Readiness Benchmarks, set by ACT, Inc., maker of the standardized test. The benchmarks are intended to measure the skills and knowledge a student will need to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in their first-year college courses without resorting to remedial classes. Of the four benchmarks—English, reading, mathematics and science—students struggled with science the most. Just 30 percent met the benchmark in science, while 66 percent met the English benchmark (the highest percentage).

U.S. students have scored low in math for decades. The National Center for Education Statistics regularly assesses eighth graders and reports on their progress in reading and math. Long-term trends show that since 1978, the average math score has increased just 17 points (from 264 to 281 out of 500) [link TK—I generated the report and have a pdf I can upload]. In the spring of 2012 the center released a national report card on science showing that the percentage of students performing at a basic or proficient level increased between 2009 and 2011. The percentage of students at an advanced or below basic level did not change.

Whereas those numbers themselves may be hard to interpret, it is easier to compare scores within groups. Average scores show a distinct gap between public and private schools—private school students scored an average of 12 points higher. Interactivity pays off—students who did hands-on projects more frequently scored higher, as did those who reported doing science-related activities outside of school.

Do the data indicate the U.S. is falling behind? It may be more a case of other countries catching up. In a 2009 international test for 15-year-olds in 65 countries, U.S. students’ average score was not measurably different from the international average in all three areas of literacy—reading, math and science (pdf). In science, 18 other countries had higher average scores, 33 earned lower average scores and 13 were on par with the U.S. scores.

The Obama administration has pushed science education through several programs. The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act of 2007 (COMPETES) was reauthorized in 2010. That act allowed President Obama to create the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and to set baselines for funding appropriations and education initiatives. As with any program, a tightening budget could endanger the success of that legislation. The next president and Congress will need to make decisions on whether U.S. students will be prepared for an innovative world.

Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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