America Woefully Out-Scienced

COMMENTARY Science Policy

America Woefully Out-Scienced

Dec 29, 2010 3 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

What do children in Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Estonia and Hungary all have in common? They are eating our kids' lunch, educationally speaking.

American students once were the world's best in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). No more. Today they are bested not only by students in most tiny European nations, but by those in many other countries as well.

It isn't hard to find the root of the problem. At the lower grade levels, U.S. students are highly competitive. As they progress through the education system, they lose ground. By the time they get to high school, they drop toward the bottom of the global class.

Why does this happen? Much of it has to do with who's teaching our students. Blame the "leaky pipeline." In the United States, most math and science teachers do not have math or science degrees. Elementary school teachers in particular often are not as passionate or trained in STEM subjects as they are in the arts. Too often, their students mirror the instructors' preferences by the time they reach middle school, evidencing what becomes a lifelong disinterest in STEM.

One consequence is that not enough students are making it to advanced levels of studies. Because of poor-quality education at early levels, those who do pursue science find themselves ill-equipped to tackle higher levels of STEM education. In college, American students find they cannot compete with international students. Too few freshmen who declare a STEM major graduate with a degree in STEM. Many migrate to liberal arts, but few liberal arts majors migrate to STEM.

The STEM slide is concerning on many levels. Indeed, it is a national-security concern. Security requirements often dictate that only U.S. citizens can work in many classified military science and technology efforts. There are some who suggest this is not much of a problem. There are plenty of out-of-work aerospace engineers, they say.

They are right to a certain extent, but for a reason that provides cold comfort for those concerned with military preparedness. Demand for military-design engineers is depressed because there is not much to design.

The U.S. has been on an unprecedentedly long "procurement holiday" since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. military has no research-and-development program under way for even one major fixed-wing aircraft. We haven't built a new nuclear weapon in decades. The U.S. also is in peril of losing its capabilities to design rocket motors, combat helicopters and satellites. The list goes on.

America no longer has a "just-in-time" defense industrial base. When the Pentagon stops buying entire lines of equipment, the skilled work force that supports that evaporates. Trained and experienced engineers enter other lines of work or retire. Young workers choose other careers.

One day, we may once again have civilian leadership in Washington that takes seriously its obligation to assure the long-term defense of the U.S. But effective national defense hinges on our ability to develop now the technologically advanced equipment that will give our troops a decisive edge over our foes in future conflicts. Unless Washington starts moving soon, those serious leaders of the future may find our nation no longer has a design-and-industrial base capable of building what's needed.

Unfortunately, this administration seems content to watch our military atrophy. And its ideas for improving education amount to little more than throwing money at the problem and strengthening the hand of teachers unions (which have done much to help create the current sorry state of American education).

Is there a better way to create a STEM-capable work force? You bet — and it starts with exploiting one of America's greatest advantages: information technology. States should create an environment favorable to online education. This would enable more students to have access to qualified STEM education in formats more conducive to cognitive learning. Online education should be part of a campaign to reform traditional public schooling by promoting school choice. We also should use the Internet to help promote alternative and flexible means to certify new teachers.

For 50 years Washington has been trying to make education better by increasing federal control over the nation's education system. Yet all the central education planners have accomplished has been to undermine innovation. The World Wide Web offers an opportunity to break the federal government's stranglehold on STEM. It's time to turn to the Web instead of Washington.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

First appeared in The Washington Times