NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Excellence Gap

December 16, 2011

Virtually all education reformers recognize that America's ability to remain an economic superpower depends to a significant degree on the number and quality of engineers, scientists and mathematicians graduating from our colleges and universities.  Professionals working in these "STEM" areas produce greater scientific innovation, which has generated as much as half of all U.S. economic growth over the past half-century, on some accounts.  But the number of graduates in these fields has declined steadily for the past several decades as students gradually move away from those areas of study that are most beneficial to the economy on the whole, says Sol Stern, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute.

  • A report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that bachelor's degrees in engineering peaked in 1985 and are now 23 percent below that level.
  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 6 percent of U.S. undergraduates currently major in engineering, compared with 12 percent in Europe and Israel and closer to 20 percent in Japan and South Korea.
  • The World Economic Forum now ranks the United States fifth among industrialized countries in global competitiveness, down from first place in 2008.

The fact that students are moving away from these fields has damaged the United States' competitiveness in the international scope.  Yet this trend is only one of the dangers that currently plague the American education system.

In tandem with this growing profession shift among students has been the pervasive effects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Some 10 years down the road, it is easy to see the good intentions of the law, which was one of the most significant education reforms in modern history.  Yet its negative effects are now much easier to identify and quantify than they were at the outset.  Among them is the negative effect on top-performing students.  By focusing on closing achievement gaps and lifting up the worst-off students, the law encourages educators to ignore talented learners.

Additionally, because NCLB ties federal funding to a given school's performance within state-created metrics, state lawmakers are encouraged to lower standards.  This artificially boosts scores and warrants greater shares of federal dollars.

Moving forward, Congress should reconsider some of the most damaging aspects of NCLB and should include policies that encourage the development of talented students who will drive innovation.  Additionally, lawmakers should encourage further creation of math and science academies that will encourage greater entrance into STEM fields.

Source: Sol Stern, "The Excellence Gap," City Journal, Autumn 2011.

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