The immediate reaction to the USSR’s 1957 satellite launch, the so-called “Sputnik Moment,” was fear that America had fallen behind. For the nation’s public education system, though, the reaction meant discovery of a new purpose as an instrument of national power. In a world where nations were competing in a global economy and battling for technological supremacy, education policy was defense policy; training scientists and engineers was as vital as training soldiers and sailors. The resulting National Defense Education Act (NDEA) marshalled federal resources to “insure trained manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States.” America’s widening lead in both innovation and industry over the following decades, built on institutional capacities and resource commitments that the Soviets could not match, provided decisive in winning the Cold War.
Since then, and perhaps because no clear adversary loomed, American education has abandoned that project. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education have steadily deteriorated. Students graduate without the requisite skills to contribute to a national economy that remains a strong economic competitor; among the minority that earn a college degree, nearly half proceed to a job that doesn’t require one. Research in critical fields remains misdirected and underfunded, while our academics occupy themselves with radical ideological fads.
Even without the emergence of China as a peer-competitor, these failures would be costing us dearly: in weak productivity growth, poor job prospects, and slower innovation. With the return of great-power competition, these failures represent a genuine crisis—one compounded by our adversary’s strong commitment to using its own education system as a tool of national power. Public education is an indispensable institution for cultivating America’s best and brightest, improving the productive potential of the labor force, and maintaining national technological advantages. We must use it for that purpose.
The Failure to Cultivate Talent
America’s K–12 system trails peers in delivering the foundations of a good education. For example, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures key skills like reading ability and math and science literacy for 15-year-olds, ranked the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science in 2018. A survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that just 16% of scientists considered American K–12 STEM education above average compared to global peers, whereas 46% said it was below average. Only one-fifth of America’s college-bound high school graduates are prepared for college-level coursework in STEM majors.
“Public education is an indispensable institution for cultivating America’s best and brightest, improving the productive potential of the labor force, and maintaining national technological advantages. We must use it for that purpose.”
Rather than provide tailored support to the most talented students, educators have been striving for decades to erase such distinctions entirely. Already in the 1980s, the New York Times was referring to “so-called gifted students,” reporting the belief of educators that “whatever slim gain is made by so-called gifted students” when separated out “is wiped out by the far greater loss by poorer learners.” One fad of that era, “cooperative learning,” expected high achievers to benefit from having to explain the material to their classmates. These days, under the auspices of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” New York City has announced plans to eliminate its gifted-and-talented program entirely while California has proposed math standards that deny the very existence of gifted students.
For American graduates, however, the desirability of entering industrial workforce either as workers or managers, or engineers or executives, has given way to the blandishments of careers on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. Beginning the mid-1990s, a growing number of engineers began switching to the financial industry; the trend has continued and been especially pronounced for top-performing graduates of the most highly ranked engineering schools. While some of the shift in elite employment can be explained by higher relative compensation, non-industrial sectors in the financial and “knowledge” economy also doubled their share of STEM jobs overall during the same period as the nation’s industrial base shrank. American STEM talent, small though it is, has been reallocated to enterprises with little discernible relationship to the nation’s technological or scientific priorities.
At the graduate school level, American students are few and far between. Foreign nationals account for 81% of the full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, 79% in computer science, 75% in industrial engineering, 69% in statistics, 63% in mechanical engineering and economics/statistics, 59% in civil engineering, and 57% in chemical engineering. They earned more than half of the doctoral degrees awarded in engineering, economics, computer sciences, mathematics, and statistics. Without international students, the number of students pursuing advanced degrees in critical STEM fields would be shockingly small for a nation as large as the United States.
“Without international students, the number of students pursuing advanced degrees in critical STEM fields would be shockingly small for a nation as large as the United States.”
The global attractiveness of American higher education might in theory provide a source of national power itself. The United States remains the country of choice for most international students and hosts about 1 million of the 4.3 million enrolled worldwide. But leveraging this inflow of talent would require policies at the point of admission to ensure that matriculating students are committed to remaining permanently in the country. Today, many international students face strong incentives to return to their home countries. The foreign nationals who do stay can bridge skill gaps in academia and the private sector, but not in many areas for government workers and contractors, including defense-related contractors. Dependence on human capital imported from abroad ultimately poses the same defense risks as dependence on any other import critical to national security.
The Failure to Develop the Workforce
Developing skills in industrial and manufacturing trades for American workers is just as important to our national and economic security as developing top talent in STEM fields. But the steady decline in STEM education has been matched by a failure to provide those who are not college bound with the education and skills they will need to earn good livings for themselves and their families—and that the nation needs to maintain a globally competitive industrial base.
Despite doubling per-pupil spending since the 1970s, scores for 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in reading and math have remained flat. Over the last decade, they have dropped sharply, with the lowest-scoring students falling the furthest behind. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study finds that, while the United States had higher average scores than most of the 45 participating countries in both mathematics and science, it has relatively large score gaps between the top- and bottom-performing students. In 8th grade mathematics, for instance, only 1 of the 45 other education systems (Turkey) had a larger score gap between 90th- and 10th-percentile students than the United States.
“But the steady decline in STEM education has been matched by a failure to provide those who are not college bound with the education and skills they will need to earn good livings for themselves and their families—and that the nation needs to maintain a globally competitive industrial base.”
While the United States has failed to maintain a high standard in STEM education, employment in STEM occupations has grown 79% since 1990, from 9.7 million to 17.3 million, with computer jobs growing by a staggering 338%. The result has been a critical labor shortage of American workers prepared to enter these fields, particularly in the defense base, which depends on thousands of industrial jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has found that, beyond the academic job market tenure-track faculty positions, there are widespread shortages of well-equipped American workers in STEM fields—particularly in lower-skill jobs. “As our society relies further on technology for economic development and prosperity,” it concluded, “the vitality of the STEM workforce will continue to be a cause for concern.”
Most developed countries give primary emphasis at the secondary school level to career and technical training for those not college bound. But not the United States. A landmark 2010 report from the OECD, Learning for Jobs, opens with a chart showing that most developed countries have 40–70% of their high school students in vocational and technical programs. The United States is excluded from the chart because of its “rather different approach”—that is, because it places virtually no emphasis on such programs. The college-for-all mindset is not even serving its college graduates especially well. For those not college bound, it is a disaster.
The Failure to Hold the Technological Frontier
Beyond the failure to develop top talent or an adequate workforce, our education system is also failing to produce the research essential to national power and economic competition. Washington spends almost $130 billion a year on research and development, but unlike the basic R&D of the kind Bell Labs used to sponsor in the 1950s, government funding for basic science today tends to be dispersed into politically acceptable projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation—another federal program that cries out for a massive overhaul.
As scholars Mark and Anthony Mills have concluded:
[R]ecent R&D trends do not bode well for American science and innovation. In the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, policymakers may well be more receptive to the idea that government should stimulate scientific research. Yet history indicates that, counterintuitively, if we want more practical ‘moonshots,’ we should make more long-term investments in undirected research in basic science.
The current system of federally funded university-led research and development has failed to deliver top-level research. Consider an important and long-standing measure of success, the American share of Nobel Prizes in the sciences. Overall, the United States has provided 41% of the world total of Nobel Prizes—fully 50% of world total in the sciences, medicine, and economics. Now, however, a new study has revealed America’s steady decline in Nobel Prizes for science over the past few decades. According to author Claudius Gros, “The US era is approaching its end. Since its zenith in the 1970s, US Nobel Prize productivity has already declined by a factor of 2.4.”
Slowing innovation has also stunted the productivity growth fundamental to economic prosperity. As Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation points out, “The U.S. economy has been in a productivity depression for more than a decade, suffering from a historically unprecedented slowdown in labor productivity growth.” He adds:
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), from 2010 to 2019, labor productivity growth in U.S. manufacturing fell. It was the first time since the BLS started measuring this in 1988 and likely the first time in American history. Not only did manufacturing productivity not grow over 10 years, but it actually declined. This means that more workers were needed to produce the same amount of output. The result is higher prices, lower wage growth, and less U.S. global manufacturing competitiveness.
These research failures are not unrelated to those in talent development. Both are, in part, consequences of the rising influence of radical progressivism within the public education system. Even a school like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology today finds itself suffocated by woke ideology and embroiled in controversies over scientific speakers excluded from campus for their political views. In 2021 alone, MIT hired six assistant deans of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the name of equal opportunity, activists argue continually for the reallocation of resources away from rigorous, objective fields in which the top performers do not meet politically correct quotas. Faculty find themselves under pressure to incorporate “social justice” into the teaching of physics.
Educational elites have set America on a downward spiral, reducing standards, ignoring excellence, and shifting emphasis away from “hard” subjects. Ironically while doing all that in the name of “equity,” they have simultaneously demeaned and defunded the non-college pathways that are vital to individual opportunity as well as national economic success. This would be painful in the happiest of geopolitical circumstances. Today’s circumstances are not so happy.
The Competition Begins
Unlike America, China has demonstrated a clear awareness of the vital role that public education plays in developing national power. In 2016, China already had eight times as many recent STEM graduates as the United States. By 2025, China is expected to graduate nearly twice as many doctorates as the United States—with 80% of them in STEM fields.
“Educational elites have set America on a downward spiral, reducing standards, ignoring excellence, and shifting emphasis away from “hard” subjects.”
In 2008, China launched its “Thousand Talents” program, which began as an effort to bring home Chinese scientists working abroad, often by offering to triple or quadruple their salaries. More than 10,000 joined. Then it set turned its eyes to attracting foreign talent. By 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating it as a program of espionage and intellectual property theft.
China has invested heavily in vocational education focused on the needs of its economy. “In the U.S., you could have a meeting of tooling engineers and I’m not sure we could fill the room. In China, you could fill multiple football fields,” observed Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2017. “The vocational expertise is very, very deep here, and I give the education system a lot of credit for continuing to push on that even when others were de-emphasizing vocational. Now I think many countries in the world have woken up and said this is a key thing and we’ve got to correct that. China called that right from the beginning.”
China has pursued the education policy of a competitor starting from far behind but determined to catch up. America has pursued the policy of a complacent hyperpower, forgetting what public education is for and using it more in service of social engineering than actual engineering. If we don’t remember soon, we will be the ones with no choice but to catch up.
Public education’s primary purpose is preservation of our democratic republic.
Johns Hopkins’s Ashley Berner and the Manhattan Institute’s Andy Smarick discuss options and tradeoffs in restructuring American public education.
Public education must empower the common citizen.