No Time to Waste in Making STEM Education Work

We must consolidate and properly fund programs in science, technology, engineering and math.

WideModern_scienceproject_061913.jpg
By and SHARE

Although Democrats and Republicans don't agree on much today, they have a moral imperative to make progress where they do. One area for potential cooperation is in better educating our children in math and science. This is critical to keeping America competitive globally and creating good jobs here at home. And we all know that in an era of budget deficits, we will need to achieve better results without spending more. Both those goals can be met through bipartisan reforms in the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering and math. 

Despite spending nearly $3 billion annually on STEM education, America ranks 25th in math and 17th in science when compared to other countries on international assessments. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office found that 83 percent of federally funded STEM education efforts had duplicative elements. Today, 13 federal agencies run 226 different STEM programs. Most of them aren't coordinated and aren't accountable for results. They are more responsive to individual members of Congress than actual needs in the classroom or our economy.

As former Office of Management and Budget officials under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, we know firsthand that our government can increase its focus on rigorous evidence in STEM programs.

Bush started that work through the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act, which targeted funding to critical areas like increasing the number of college graduates with STEM expertise. He also directed the first comprehensive survey of government STEM programs – a simple step that was sorely needed. And, through aggressive efforts at the Institute of Education Sciences, Bush, for the first time, established rigorous standards for looking past anecdotes and puffery to identify what actually works in education programs. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Obama has built on these efforts. His latest budget proposal takes the key step of proposing to consolidate more than 100 STEM programs into larger initiatives that are geared toward specific, critical goals, like improving the quality of math and science instruction. More funding will flow to programs with more evidence of their effectiveness, using standards similar to those developed in the Bush administration.

In addition, STEM programs will operate in a framework that emphasizes evaluation – so that government can build on what works and change or stop what doesn't. The Institute on Education Sciences is now working hand-in-hand with the National Science Foundation and other science-focused agencies to establish more specific evidence standards that can apply across STEM programs.

While these efforts may seem like common sense, they are a major break from business as usual. Program duplication in the federal government abounds, and nearly every program has an owner in the executive branch and an owner in Congress. They fight to keep what they have. But things have to change, and the good news is that change has begun. Much of the leadership behind the current Obama administration proposal came from outstanding civil servants with whom both of us served. They understand that in this era of deficits and sequestration, the status quo is simply not sustainable. And at a time when bipartisanship is critical, members of Congress are giving the proposal a respectful hearing.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The real challenge now is to make the Obama administration's STEM proposals into a template for more aggressive government reforms in other areas. The Bush  administration established one of the first truly evidence-based initiatives, a small pilot for home visitation. The Obama administration has now built on that approach – not just in home visiting, but in fields like job training and international development.

The truth is that these programs still allocate only a tiny fraction of taxpayer funding, even in areas like education where we have real evidence about what works and what doesn't. This means that taxpayers don't get the best return on their investments – and the people who are supposed to benefit from government programs don't either.