Many Americans Think K-12 STEM Ed Lags Behind Peer Nations. They’re Half-Right

Survey reveals majority of U.S. adults believe STEM education is at or below average. Pew test score analysis shows more hope for science than math.

Tom Jenkins is a middle school science teacher in Ohio. He’s spent the last 25 years working with students in low-income urban and rural schools and served as an Einstein Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

About two-thirds of U.S. adults believe K-12 STEM education in this country is average or worse when compared to peer nations, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. A remaining 28% believe it is above average or the best internationally. 

Turns out the perception is more true of math than science.

Senior Pew researcher Brian Kennedy put those STEM performance beliefs into context by looking at the most recent results from PISA, an international assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics and science literacy in the U.S. and other industrialized nations. The U.S. is indeed lagging behind in math, his research shows, but is performing — if not the best in the world — better than average in science.

In math, U.S. students ranked 28th out of 37 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a ranking similar to the last time the test was administered in 2018, despite an alarming 13-point drop on the exam post-pandemic. In science, however, the U.S. ranked 12th out of 37 OECD countries, following a 3-point drop in scores. In both subjects, the average U.S. score was within 15 points of international averages. 

Pew Research Center

“Broadly, we’re interested in where science interacts with society — where those touchpoints are,” Kennedy told The 74, “and one place is through STEM education. People experience STEM education in their own lives or they experience it through their children’s lives. So we think it’s important to get an understanding of how the public rates STEM education in this country.”

Pew Research Center surveyed 10,133 U.S. adults from Feb. 7 to Feb. 11 this year using the Center’s American Trends Panel, an online survey panel. Kennedy noted that the findings are largely consistent with societal perceptions going back about a decade, based on similar previous studies by the research center. 

This year’s numbers remain mostly consistent across the political spectrum, but diverge when broken down by race, with white respondents showing the most pessimism. They were the least likely (24%) to think K-12 STEM education in the U.S. is the best or above average, behind Black respondents (31%), Hispanic respondents (37%) and Asian respondents (43%).

And fewer women (25%) than men (32%) say K-12 STEM education is at least above average, a difference Tom Jenkins, a middle school science teacher in Ohio, attributed to the historic lack of representation of women in science and math curriculum.

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, a 25-year veteran teacher in low-income urban and rural settings, also spoke to why American students may be scoring better in science than math. 

“Based on my experience with this [as an educator] — and also being a product of an inner-city school that was first-generation college and lower-socioeconomic myself — I really think a lot of it has to do with the way that we teach math and the way we teach science and how there’s different expectations for both subjects,” he said.

Historically, there’s an expectation in science classes that students will be highly engaged with hands-on, experiential learning that’s connected to real-world issues, he said, adding that those same expectations don’t necessarily exist in math classes. This is “unfortunate because there are so many teachable things [in math] that we could use in a hands-on, practical way that’s culturally relevant, that’s project-based.”

Amid precipitously declining math scores post-pandemic, Jenkins is not alone in his urgent call for a shift in the way math is taught. 

It’s important when students walk into his — and all — classrooms, he said, that they know they’ll be learning skills that are going to help them not only better understand the academic content but also prepare them for a wide variety of careers. 

“If we really want to have an impact in math and science and STEM subjects,” he said, “and we want to get it to stick with our lower-socioeconomic or traditionally under-represented groups in STEM, then we really need to make it have some relevance.” 

In reflecting on American students’ PISA performances he added, “I do think that while [the] middle is not the worst — I do think it’s very important that we understand that while this acknowledges that we’re doing well — we still have a long way to go and we have a lot of disenfranchised groups or historically underrepresented groups that we’re not… impacting well enough 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)

Education advocate Talia Milgrom-Elcott echoed this point, noting there’s no reason American students should be in the middle of the pack. Milgrom-Elcott is the founder and executive director of Beyond 100K, a national network focused on ending the STEM teacher shortage with a particular focus on Black, Latino and Indigenous communities.

She also noted that average scores often mask disparities, which is especially true in STEM.

“A lot of us have an outdated — what should be an outdated — idea about STEM that only some people are good at it, that only some people will ever excel in it, and often that they look a certain way — are a certain gender, race, income level, etc. And so there’s something in our gut that’s not activated when we see a lot of kids at the bottom.” 

She said that if the U.S. hopes to move up in the ratings, there must be a commitment to eradicating these disparities.

“And ‘up in the rating,’ by the way, is not in itself a goal,” she added. “It’s only a goal because being competitive in math and science — having more kids having those classes and that knowledge and those opportunities — is going to drive social mobility, economic mobility. It’s going to drive global competitiveness. It’s going to help the United States continue to be an innovation factory to solve the most pressing challenges.”

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today