Congress of the United States


Date of this Version



Published by Congressional Research Service,, RL33434


There is growing concern that the United States is not preparing a sufficient number of students, teachers, and practitioners in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A large majority of secondary school students fail to reach proficiency in math and science, and many are taught by teachers lacking adequate subject matter knowledge.

When compared to other nations, the math and science achievement of U.S. pupils and the rate of STEM degree attainment appear inconsistent with a nation considered the world leader in scientific innovation. In a recent international assessment of 15-year-old students, the U.S. ranked 28th in math literacy and 24th in science literacy. Moreover, the U.S. ranks 20th among all nations in the proportion of 24-year-olds who earn degrees in natural science or engineering.

A 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office found that 207 distinct federal STEM education programs were appropriated nearly $3 billion in FY2004. Nearly three-quarters of those funds and nearly half of the STEM programs were in two agencies: the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Still, the study concluded that these programs are highly decentralized and require better coordination. Though uncovering many fewer individual programs, a 2007 inventory compiled by the American Competitiveness Council also put the federal STEM effort at $3 billion and concurred with many of the GAO findings regarding decentralization and coordination.

STEM education (and competitiveness) issues have received a lot of attention in recent years. Several high-profile proposals were forwarded by the academic and business communities. In February of 2006, the President released the American Competitiveness Initiative. During the 109th Congress, three somewhat modest STEM education programs were passed and signed into law. Finally, in the spring and summer of 2007, some of the major STEM education legislative proposals were combined into the America Competes Act of 2007, passed by the 110th Congress and signed by the President on August 9, 2007.

This report provides the background and context to understand these legislative developments. The report first presents data on the state of STEM education in the United States. It then examines the federal role in promoting STEM education. The report concludes with a discussion of the legislative actions recently taken to address federal STEM education policy.