Study Shows American K-12 STEM Education Falls Behind Other Countries

There is a prevailing belief among about 28% of U.S. adults that K-12 STEM education is above average or outstanding on a global scale, while roughly two-thirds perceive it as average or worse when compared to other countries, as reported in a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Interestingly, this perception primarily applies to mathematics rather than science.

A recent examination by Senior Pew researcher Brian Kennedy delved into the comparative STEM performance beliefs by analyzing the latest results from PISA, an international assessment that evaluates the reading, math, and science literacy of 15-year-old students in the U.S. and other developed nations. The research findings indicate a lag in math performance by the U.S., while demonstrating that the country performs better than average in science.

According to Kennedy’s analysis, U.S. students ranked 28th out of 37 countries within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for math, a position consistent with the previous examination in 2018, despite a concerning 13-point decline in scores after the pandemic. In science, however, the U.S. ranked 12th out of the 37 OECD countries, with a 3-point drop in scores. The average U.S. scores in both subjects were within 15 points of the global averages.

Pew Research Center

“Our interest lies in the intersection of science with society, particularly in the realm of STEM education. Individuals encounter STEM education in their personal lives or through their children’s education. Hence, understanding the public’s perspective on STEM education within the U.S. is crucial,” Kennedy shared with The 74 about the survey.

The Pew Research Center’s survey, conducted with 10,133 U.S. adults from Feb. 7 to Feb. 11 this year using the Center’s American Trends Panel online survey portal, echoed societal perceptions over the past decade, as indicated by previous studies from the research center.

While the survey results for this year remain consistent across the political spectrum, variations arise when examining responses by race, with white participants exhibiting the least optimism about K-12 STEM education in the U.S. compared to Black, Hispanic, and Asian participants.

Moreover, fewer women (25%) than men (32%) perceive K-12 STEM education as at least above average. A middle school science teacher in Ohio, Tom Jenkins, attributed this disparity to the historical lack of female representation in science and math curricula.

Science teacher Tom Jenkins working with his 8th-grade students at a local wetlands. They helped a former student and her graduate school class gather data for a Wright State University research project. The 8th-graders also designed their own wetlands as they learned the importance of modeling in science. (Tom Jenkins)

Jenkins, an experienced teacher in low-income urban and rural settings for 25 years, highlighted potential reasons why American students perform better in science than in math. 

“In my teaching experience and as a product of a first-generation college from a lower-socioeconomic inner-city school, I believe that the difference lies in the teaching methods between math and science subjects and the varying expectations set for each,” Jenkins explained.

He emphasized that science classes typically involve engaging, hands-on experiential learning tied to real-world issues, which is not consistently present in math instruction. Jenkins noted the missed opportunity in math classes for practical, culturally relevant, project-based learning.

With math scores declining significantly post-pandemic, Jenkins joins others in advocating for a transformation in math pedagogy to enhance student learning outcomes. 

When students enter his classroom, Jenkins emphasized the importance of imparting skills that aid not only in understanding academic content but also in preparing them for a diverse range of careers.

“For a truly impactful change in math, science, and STEM subjects, especially for underrepresented and economically disadvantaged groups, relevance is paramount,” Jenkins asserted.

Reflecting on American students’ PISA performances, Jenkins noted the importance of acknowledging progress while recognizing the persistent educational challenges faced by marginalized groups in STEM subjects.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the founder and executive director of Beyond 100K, a national network focused on ending the STEM teacher shortage. (Talia Milgrom-Elcott)

Talia Milgrom-Elcott, an education advocate, echoed Jenkins’ sentiments, highlighting the need for a significant improvement in U.S. students’ STEM standing. Milgrom-Elcott leads Beyond 100K, a national initiative aimed at alleviating the shortage of STEM teachers, particularly in Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities.

She emphasized that while average scores may imply consistency, disparities among students, especially in STEM education, persist.

“Many still uphold outdated notions regarding STEM competence, assuming that only a select few excel in these subjects based on specific characteristics such as gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Addressing these educational gaps and inequalities is vital to advancing in global rankings,” Milgrom-Elcott emphasized.

As she further explained, progress in math and science achievements not only fosters competitiveness but also promotes social and economic mobility, global innovation, and addresses crucial societal challenges.

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