The second force that brought STEM to the forefront, Drew said, is “the recognition and frustration that we are setting up unnecessary unfair barriers for people.” By this he refers to the unequal access to quality STEM education throughout the country, as well as the discrimination and discouragement faced by students who do try to pursue further education in these fields. This work has been covered extensively in the popular and scholarly media (I’ve written about it, too) and has inspired numerous initiatives, from mobile DIY-engineering spaces to government programs that highlight departments’ diverse technical workforce, all of which are meant to level the playing field for students interested in STEM.
Finally, Drew said, the U.S. cares about STEM now because it realized “that we’re not doing as well in STEM in
K-12 education.” Much of this fear stems from the biennial findings of the Program for International Student Assessment, an organization that issues a test to 15-year-olds all over the world to rank their competence in reading, math, and science. Those scary 2012 statistics—that out of 65 education systems American students rank 27th in math and 20th in science—have generated headlines such as “U.S. Students Slide In Global Ranking On Math, Reading, Science” from NPR and “U.S. teens lag in global education rankings as Asian countries rise to the top” on NBC.
But the metric used to determine America’s standing is far from perfect, and its 2012 score isn’t necessarily an aberration. “I found that the U.S. has always been in the middle—we’ve never been at the top,” Teitelbaum said, pointing out that many of the education systems at the top of the list are cities, like Shanghai and Hong Kong, or very small countries like Singapore. “I’m not saying their performance is irrelevant,” Teitelbaum said, but the comparison shouldn’t be considered a direct one. “If you take a national average of the U.S., you have a huge disparity in educational performance across this country, even down to the local level, so you have a higher variety of educational outcomes,” he said, so it makes sense that Americans' average is not as high as smaller education systems. “We’re not falling back, some [other] countries are just rising, and the U.S. is not rising.”
Other metrics corroborate the idea that the U.S. isn’t falling behind when it comes to STEM. 2012 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that the U.S. spent more than any other country on research and development. Similar data from the OECD shows that, in 2011, American scientists had published the most papers in reputable scientific journals and had submitted the greatest number of patents.
So, if the jobs don’t exist and the country isn’t moving up on the international rankings anytime soon, why place emphasis on STEM? “I think every kid who graduates needs to understand science, math, and technology,” said Teitelbaum, who was among the experts to point out that the U.S. doesn’t have a shortage of STEM workers. “I think that being competent in STEM fields at the end of secondary school is the modern equivalent of being literate and numerate in the 19th century.”