Government Has No Idea Whether The Billions It Spends On STEM Education Is Working


An audit by the Government Accountability Office suggests the White House isn’t measuring how well STEM education programs work.

Keeping America’s workforce competitive in the 21st century will require doubling down on science and technology skills, but the government group in charge of boosting STEM education has not measured how well most of its programs work, a congressional watchdog found.

The White House’s Committee on STEM Education failed to carry out performance reviews on hundreds of the federal STEM education programs it oversees, according to the Government Accountability Office. The interagency group also didn’t monitor how many people from underrepresented communities participated in the many of the initiatives, investigators found.

The America COMPETES Act requires agencies to evaluate education programs and report on the demographics of participants. Failure to do so could be a setback for federal efforts to prepare the country’s workforce for careers in emerging fields like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, and make it difficult to know whether government is making STEM more accessible to historically underrepresented groups, the GAO report said.

Between 2011 and 2016, the government spent roughly $3 billion annually on STEM education, but the total number of federal programs fell from 209 to 163. The committee attributed the changes to agencies launching, discontinuing and consolidating programs, but GAO found only 49 of the 109 programs that remained active between 2011 and 2016 were ever evaluated.

Investigators said the lack of analysis hampers the committee’s ability to share best practices across government and make evidence-based program recommendations.

Although diversifying the STEM workforce is one of the committee’s strategic goals, only 61 percent of programs tracked how many women participated and 54 percent documented which participants were African American. The COMPETES Act also requires agencies report how many program participants come from rural areas, but only 6 percent did so.

The STEM workforce in the private sector tends to be disproportionately white and male, and the government is no different. Both women and people of color hold less than 30 percent of STEM positions in the federal government, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Making STEM more inclusive will not only open up more jobs for underrepresented groups, but could also start chipping away at the growing shortage of tech talent.

The global cyber workforce shortage is projected to hit 1.8 million by 2022, and much of the government’s already meager IT workforce is quickly approaching retirement age. In September 2017, federal agencies employed roughly 4.5 IT specialists age 60 or older for every employee under 30 years old.

Investigators said improving program evaluation and participant monitoring would help the committee better assess whether it was “broadening access” and “encourag[ing] the use of evidenced-based practices” in STEM education. The committee and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy agreed with GAO’s recommendations.