This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science

Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?

Scientific American asks leaders of a dozen House and Senate committees for written answers to eight policy questions related to science and technology

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, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st.  In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last 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?

Representative Timothy Bishop, New York State–1 (D) and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, writes:

Without a doubt, the U.S. is still the undisputed champion of innovation that drives the global economy forward.  However, in an increasingly globalized world in which other nations continue to modernize, future generations will face ever-increasing competition from our neighbors abroad.  It is clear that a highly-skilled and highly-educated workforce is absolutely essential to maintaining American's role as a global leader, so it is critical that we continue to support investments in education to ensure our next generation has the skills and knowledge necessary to reach their goals. 

One of the most important tools to prepare our youth for the challenges of tomorrow is science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.  As a member of the Education & Workforce committee, I strongly support STEM education initiatives and strongly oppose recent efforts to reduce federal funding in these areas.  Furthermore, if we are to be a successful nation tomorrow, we must expand access to our schools and improve the quality of education in our classrooms.  That is why I support increased funding for primary and secondary education, as well as policies that ensure students and teachers have the tools they need to be successful. 

Representative John Boehner, Ohio–8 (R) and speaker of the House, declined to respond to the eight science questions we asked. On his Web site he outlines his priorities for education reform:

Leaving No Child Behind in Our Nation’s Schools
The No Child Left Behind Act is a blueprint for fundamental education reform, and it represents a huge step in the right direction for Americans who believe big government is not the solution to problems with our education system. We have already seen that more bureaucracy is not the answer.

For more than 30 years, Washington has spent more than $300 billion on public education. Yet there is still a huge disparity in educational achievement between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers. For the first time in years, with the implementation of No Child Left Behind, we are finally insisting on results.

When I served as Chairman of the House Education & Workforce Committee, I worked to craft an education bill that reflected the principles of accountability, local control, funding for what works, and expanded parental options. Our efforts have paid off.

No Child Left Behind gives control and flexibility to local and state governments over how they use federal education funds, instead of relying on Washington bureaucrats to make decisions about our childrens’ education. This is the first step toward closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.

Expanding School Choice
School choice programs give parents and their children options in education, which should be a common goal for all of us. The issue is not where students go to school, but rather how they are educated. With this in mind, I’ve long supported opportunity scholarships, which allow students transfer from underperforming schools to higher achieving schools where they can take advantage of the best our education system has to offer. We should be encouraging school choice and encouraging schools to provide students with opportunities to improve their education rather than forcing students to accept sub-standard options.

Addressing the College Cost Crisis
It’s no secret to college students, recent graduates, and their parents that the cost of obtaining a college education has been spiraling out of control. According to the College Board, there was very little real growth in college prices during the 1970s. In the early 1980s, however, the tide began to take a turn for the worse. Tuition and fees began to grow much more rapidly than the average prices of other goods and services. In fact, during the 1980s, the cost of attending college rose more than three times as fast as the typical family income. This trend of rapidly-increasing college costs continued unfettered through the 1990s.

In late 2003, the House Education Committee released a report showing that costs for higher education are rising because students and parents lack the consistent ability to hold the higher education system accountable for disproportionate tuition increases. In short, they don’t have access to the kind of information they need to fully exercise their power as consumers. After all, college students and their parents are just that: “consumers.” And for these consumers, the market has not been kind.

Consider this: Over a ten-year period ending in 2002-2003 - after adjusting for inflation - the average tuition at both public and private colleges rose 38 percent. Looking back even further, since 1981, the cost of a four-year public education has risen by 202 percent! That’s MORE THAN DOUBLE the average cost increase for other goods and services during that same time period.

But wait – there is good news. As the College Board notes, there is now a record amount of financial aid available for struggling students and families. And even knowing this, I will continue to fight for expanded access to higher education for low and middle-income students by: 
• Strengthening Pell Grants, student aid, student access, and minority serving institutions; 
• Reducing red tape for students and graduates; 
• Removing barriers for non-traditional students; and 
• Empowering consumers through “sunshine” and transparency in college costs & accreditation.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, California (D) and chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, writes:

I have always been a strong supporter of schools and teachers.  In particular, I believe excellent teachers in math and science classrooms are critical for the United States to remain competitive.  It is imperative that we fully prepare our students with the skills necessary for 21st century jobs, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  I supported the America COMPETES Act, a bill signed into law last year that increased funding for STEM education. The federal government and its partners must coordinate efforts to increase student interest in math and science long before they reach college age in order to boost the number of STEM graduates entering the workforce.

Representative Ralph Hall, Texas–4 (R) and chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, writes:

Our nation has long been the leader in science and innovation.  In order to maintain this prominence, we must have robust STEM education efforts in place at all levels of education, from pre-K through post-graduate.  Unfortunately, the Federal Government has invested more than $16 billion on STEM education over the last five years alone, with very little to show for it.   Throwing more and more money at the problem is not going to fix it.  It is going to take dedicated teachers with the right skills set, committed parents, responsive school administrations, and invested communities to engage these students and reverse the trend.  Fortunately, industry, philanthropic organizations, non-profits, parents, teachers, and state and local governments are stepping up to the plate and working together to capture and hold the attention of our nation's youth in STEM education so they will want to pursue these careers, not be forced into them simply because we need them.  This is how it should be, as STEM education is a state and local issue and should remain so.  However, the Federal Government does have a role to play in this equation, primarily as a facilitator of stakeholders and as a disseminator of best practices and model programs. It is for these reasons that the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has held a series of STEM in Action hearings this Congress to highlight various STEM partnerships, replicable STEM-focused schools, and stellar in-school and out-of-school STEM programs. 

Likewise, it is for these same reasons that I, along with several of my colleagues, requested the National Academies to look at what steps all stakeholders "could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century."  The findings can be found in the report, Research Universities and the Future of America.  Similarly for the K-12 level, the Committee has highlighted a number of best practices and model programs that were showcased in the NAS report requested by Congress, Successful K-12 Stem Education:  Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa (D) and chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, writes:

To address our country's needs to improve student math and science proficiency, in my October 2011 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act I, along with Senator Merkley of Oregon, included a bill entitled the Improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Instruction and Student Achievement grants program.  This new STEM program will improve student outcomes in math and science by:

  • Improving instruction in STEM subjects for students in pre-K through grade 12;
  • Getting students engaged and excited about STEM subjects and careers;
  • Increasing student access to high-quality STEM courses;
  • Improving the quality and effectiveness of classroom instruction by recruiting, training, and supporting highly effective STEM teachers; and
  • Closing student achievement gaps, and preparing more students to be on track to college and career readiness and success in STEM subjects.

By ensuring that teachers have 21st century knowledge, providing science and math curriculum in elementary school, having school districts identify gaps in availability of high quality math and science courses, and providing those courses to all students, we will be able to improve the outcomes of our students in the critical areas of math, science, technology and engineering.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky (R) and Senate minority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. The senator was a lead sponsor of the America COMPETES Act. At that time he released a statement available via the States News Service and published April 24, 2007. The whole statement follows:

As a child, my parents encouraged me to do better in my math and science classes in school. I'll admit they weren't my best subjects. I just couldn't see as a kid how math and science would be that important to me in the future.

As a Senator, however, I've come to see how imperative it is for today's students to master math and science, so America can retain its competitive edge in the global economy of the 21st century.

America currently has the greatest scientific and technological enterprise in the world. We have the finest system of colleges and universities anywhere. But in many ways we have become complacent, while other countries are catching up.

They see that by investing in science and technology, and in the education of their citizens, they can attract jobs and create wealth. We must make the same investment in our future if we are to maintain our leadership through this century and beyond in the global marketplace.

A few years ago, realizing that America was falling behind, a group of Senators approached the National Academy of Sciences, a venerable organization bringing together the country's leading scientific minds.

We asked them a simple question: What are the top 10 actions that policymakers in Washington could take to keep America in the lead in science and technology for the 21st Century?

The Academy turned to its members leaders of business, government, and academia and came up with an answer. And the good news is that boosting the number of rocket scientists along with mathematicians, engineers and computer designers is not rocket science.

Many of the Academy's recommendations now form an important bill that the Senate is currently considering, the America COMPETES Act. It will help maintain and improve the United States' competitive edge over the next century by increasing our investment in basic research, strengthening educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math at all educational levels, and encouraging young people to pursue careers in those fields.

This fall, the Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, will open. It will bring together talented high-school students from all over the Commonwealth to study advanced math and science year-round for college credit.
The America COMPETES Act would provide federal support to advanced academies like the Kentucky Academy throughout the nation. It would also allow Kentucky to provide scholarships for students pursuing careers as math or science teachers, and hold summer academies for math and science teachers across the state to help them inspire their students.

At all the major centers for learning across our state, the faculty and administrators understand the importance of emphasizing math, science and engineering to keep Kentucky competitive with the rest of the country and the world.

The America COMPETES Act will help them do that by devoting more federal funding to research and development efforts at universities, creating hundreds of new opportunities for young scientists. These investments will eventually generate new discoveries, new high-tech companies, and new jobs.
America has led the world in innovation for over a century. From the light bulb to the airplane to the integrated circuit, we have given the world the tools to live happier, easier, and more productive lives.

But now countries like China and India are seeing the benefits of brainpower and what it can do to remake their economies. America's failure to value the importance of a scientific education has put us behind, and Congress can take the lead in beginning to solve it.

The America COMPETES Act is the best way to keep more of the jobs of the 21st Century right here in America, and in Kentucky. With it, we can ensure that our children have the skills to keep America at the forefront of innovation and discovery.          

Representative John Mica, Florida–7 (R) and chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, writes:

To better prepare our children for the global economy, we should discourage policies that dumb down education curricula and redirect financial aid to those whose careers are directed toward science and technology fields.  We must also do a better job of recruiting, educating and retaining qualified teachers.  Too many students have a weak foundation in science and technology and are unable to develop their knowledge in those fields.

From a Federal perspective, education decisions are best handled at the local level as communities have different needs and resources.  Federal policy should encourage school choice, require baseline achievement standards to receive Federal money and promote academic innovation by the states.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, California–8 (D) and House minority leader, writes:

Actually, rather than "falling behind," what has happened over the last 20 years is that the performance of U.S. students in math and science has stayed the same (rather than improved) while the performance of students in many other nations has grown exponentially, outdistancing our students.  This is because over the last 20 years a number of countries have focused national attention on their students excelling in the areas of math and science education as a way for their country to create a highly-skilled workforce, allowing the country to compete in the increasingly competitive global economy.  Unfortunately, the United States has only recently begun focusing our national attention and our national resources on the importance of our students excelling in math and science education.

I believe the federal government needs to play a collaborative role with the states in better preparing students for the 21st century economy.  That is why, as Speaker, we enacted the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which placed a new emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math education, including creating scholarships for tens of thousands of new highly-qualified math and science teachers; and the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which created programs to bolster students' interest in science and technology through collaborations with businesses and other stakeholders and focused on recruiting teachers in high-demand science and technology fields.

Senator Harry Reid, Nevada (D) and Senate majority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. He has a section of his Web site that describes his priorities for education:

As someone whose life was transformed by education, I understand the importance of providing all Nevadans the opportunity to receive a quality education. That is why I have fought to provide resources for Nevada's schools, colleges, and universities and worked to make higher education affordable and accessible to more Nevada students.  I remain committed to addressing Nevada's high dropout rate, concerns with the No Child Left Behind Act, and ensuring that Nevada students are prepared for college or a career.

Preparing Nevada's Students for the Global Economy
We must ensure that our nation's students and teachers are prepared to continue leading the world in innovation, research, and technology. Towards this end, during the 110th Congress, I helped lead passage of the America COMPETES Act, to improve math and science education and increase the federal commitment to research. I was pleased to help lead passage of a reauthorization of this important legislation in 2010.

In addition, the Recovery Act included significant funding for scientific research and technology and to expand access to broadband, particularly in rural communities.  These investments will help ensure that students have the skills they need to be ready for higher education and the workforce.

A New Direction for No Child Left Behind
It is clear that significant changes need to be made to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  It has been vastly underfunded, accountability measures have proven far too punitive, and states have been given little flexibility in implementing the law's requirements.  It has caused good schools to be labeled as failing and puts undue pressure on students and teachers to focus on passing standardized tests instead of engaging in other subjects such as the sciences, history, art, or music.

The Senate and House education committees are currently working on ways to improve NCLB – which is now referred to by its original name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  I am committed to a reauthorization that ensures accountability, but recognizes all levels of student improvement and growth.  I am also deeply troubled by Nevada's persistently high dropout rate, and will work to ensure that ESEA contains provisions to address middle and high school improvement and dropout prevention.

I am committed to making this law work for Nevada's schools, teachers, administrators, parents, and our students. I have heard from each of Nevada's school superintendents and education leaders across the state on ways to improve ESEA.  I also want to hear from you about how we can improve this law, and would welcome your concerns or suggestions about ESEA.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia (D) and chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, writes:

I worry that we Americans are spending too much time watching sports and entertainment - and too little time on educational achievement. Education plays a critical role in keeping America competitive.  As the economy becomes more driven by technology, our workforce will need to become more proficient in STEM fields in order to remain competitive on the job market.  Over the last 10 years, STEM jobs were created three times faster than non-STEM jobs.  However, American students are finding themselves ill prepared to excel in college; 20 percent of high school students entering college have to take at least one remedial class to prepare for university-level coursework.  Furthermore, we are losing foreign students studying at advanced levels in the United States to their home countries who return to become leading researchers and innovators.

Legislation in Congress, including the DREAM Act, would provide students with opportunities to further their education and properly prepare for advanced job requirements. And increasing the number of visas allocated for foreign students earning STEM degrees would keep qualified workers in the country and ensure the United States remains competitive, though we can't decrease other green card programs that support other legal immigration.

The majority of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States depend on intimate knowledge of math and science. Yet we are failing our students by improperly preparing them for advanced careers. U.S. students typically score below the average of OECD nations on international math and science tests. And universities in Asia are now awarding more than half of all engineering degrees.

But our investments in STEM must be strategic. At a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman gave important testimony about the need to dramatically change how we teach STEM subjects to both students and educators. Teachers—from elementary school through higher education—need to understand the learning process, scientific method and STEM information in order to successfully instruct and inspire students.  Changing our teacher education programs is a serious challenge, but one that must be confronted to develop a competitive American workforce.

The economic incentives for graduates in STEM fields are also clear. Workers in STEM fields tend to earn a higher salary, on average, and the unemployment rate is historically lower. Despite the national level of unemployment, the United States is facing an overall shortage of STEM workers. Many CEOs are also calling for higher standards for STEM proficiency in U.S. schools, citing the future needs of their companies.

A February 2012 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found that one million additional STEM graduates will be needed in the next ten years to fill the growing number of jobs requiring STEM knowledge outside of the traditional STEM fields. We need to improve job training to align our workforce with the skills demanded by the global economy. And we need to find ways to train people to fill these jobs today while preparing students for future high-tech jobs.

There are challenges ahead to properly educate and prepare U.S. students for STEM competency. But programs like NASA's "Summer of Innovation" and the President's "Educate to Innovate" are in place to motivate and inspire students in STEM education. U.S. leadership in research and innovation is ultimately at risk without a skilled workforce with knowledge in STEM fields.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, Maryland–8 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on the Budget, writes:

There is no single explanation for the challenge America faces in STEM education – issues range from the persistent achievement gap in high-poverty schools to teacher training and professional development. I agree with"Rising Above the Gathering Storm" that we must develop outstanding K-12 teachers in math and science that have subject-matter expertise and can engage students in meaningful ways. I support President Obama's goal of 100,000 effective math and science teachers to train one million STEM graduates over the next decade through new competitive grants for STEM teacher training programs and funding for the National Science Foundation and Department of Education to identify and disseminate best practices for quality teacher preparation and student learning at K-12 and undergraduate levels.

I also support the state-driven transition to common core standards. I am pleased that most states are adopting the new math standards, and look forward to the final Next Generation Science Standards. It is essential that we challenge students with a rigorous, comprehensive curriculum that prepares them to compete globally.

Representative Henry Waxman, California–30 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, writes:

Although our colleges and universities are home to world-class science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs that attract the best and brightest domestic and international students, I am very concerned that the math and science test scores of American school children are lagging behind their counterparts in other countries.  I believe we must create more opportunities for students to gain hands-on experiences that inspire them to pursue STEM learning.  The Obama Administration has put forth several strategies to address the shortcomings in our education system and improve student achievement in these vital areas, including the President's goal of training an additional 100,000 effective STEM teachers over the next ten years.  I also support the Administration's efforts to engage private sector employers in STEM education programs that connect students to career opportunities in STEM fields. 

The innovation and technological breakthroughs that emerge from STEM fields are vital to our economic growth and prosperity, and we must raise our commitment to STEM teaching and learning across all levels of our education system to maintain our edge in the global economy.  We cannot maintain the promise of American ingenuity without investing in the next generation of leaders in these critical fields. 


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This article was originally published with the title "Why Science Is Better When It's Multinational."

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