America is facing a STEM and data education crisis

Math scores of K-12 students in the U.S. plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopes that these scores would rebound among teenagers after the pandemic have proven vain. In 2023, U.S. News & World Report reported that math scores among teenagers are the worst they’ve been since the 1970s.

The New York Times likewise reports that U.S. students’ performance in math plunged in a 2023 global exam. Although scores fell across the globe, there was a 13-point drop among 15-year-olds in the U.S. — a much sharper drop than observed in other countries. U.S. students fell behind peers in similar industrialized democracies such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, and trail far behind students in the highest-scoring countries, including Singapore, South Korea and Estonia.

These results provided the first global comparison since 2020.

This should sound alarm bells for parents, teachers, lawmakers, the teenagers of the world and all who will listen. This country is in the midst of a STEM and data literacy crisis. We may not feel the effects now, but they will be felt immensely in the future. This crisis threatens our science and technology leadership as well as our economic security.

Declining math scores among America’s youth point to a data literacy crisis that threatens our shared security and prosperity. Data literacy is the ability to read, understand, interpret, engage with, and communicate data. The data-literate can evaluate the quality and reliability of data, ask informed questions, and effectively communicate data-driven findings.

Preparing today’s children to make tomorrow’s scientific breakthroughs for a better future requires a new national commitment that demands the attention, action and commitment of policymakers and leaders in Washington, D.C., and beyond.

The Mathematical and Statistical Modeling Education Act and the Data Science and Literacy Act are important pieces of legislation. If enacted, they would help modernize secondary mathematical and STEM education to better prepare students for more advanced STEM educational and career opportunities. The legislation would authorize $10 million annually for schools at all levels, from pre-K to college, to increase access to data science and literacy education. These bills would make data science literacy a primary strategy to increase representation and diversity in emerging technology.

Although $10 million won’t immediately change the world, it will make a big difference. It sets forth a path for national commitment to become a data-literate society. By restructuring how parents, stakeholders, educators and our children think about and study math and science, we can better connect them to the significant and practical needs of modern society.

We need a data-literate workforce, data-literate policymakers and, ultimately, a data-literate population. To get there, we must start in schools and on campuses.

The Society for Human Resource Management said the country has a need to “boost STEM education to be prepared for the nearly 3.5 million STEM jobs that need to be staffed by 2025.”

In recent years, many universities have added or expanded programs around data science, analytics, computer science and similar disciplines. But that’s not enough. Meaningful data literacy that can shape the trajectory of future generations requires building data literacy into the fabric of our educational systems at the start of a child’s education. We must integrate data- and analytics-driven technologies into classrooms and curricula to inspire the next generation.

It is not easy to implement such a systemic educational change is not easy. We are all aware of the breadth and depth of the issues facing schools and children worldwide. Without a guiding light to lead us and show us the types of meaningful career opportunities and societal imperatives that await our children and grandchildren, America is at risk of being unprepared and vulnerable in the years to come.

First, we must properly educate students and ingrain in their education the importance of STEM and data literacy. Even if we do that, however, few prospective STEM students understand how their skills can be transferred and powerful enough to solve societal problems.

Operations research, one of the fastest-growing STEM fields, enables students to use their data skills to save lives, save money and solve problems. Though its name might not have significant meaning to you, operations research is a dynamic and significant field that turns data into decisions. As of late, there has been an abundance of new applications of operations research, such as humanitarian logistics, disrupting human trafficking and addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If more young people, motivated by STEM, understood the impact of operations research and analytics, and more people in academia could advise them about meaningful and rewarding career paths in this incredible field, there’s little doubt these students would eagerly seek out operations research and analytics programs, as well as careers in science and technology.

Operations research and analytics practitioners and educators must rally to help those around us understand the need for more thoughtful and effective educational resources and guidance.

It is imperative that our country commit to preparing the workforce of tomorrow with sufficient data literacy skills to ensure economic prosperity for future generations.

Elena Gerstmann is executive director of INFORMS, where Laura Albert served as a past president. 

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