New Research: Is the U.S. Still Educating a Nation of Inventors?


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Abraham Lincoln is said to have joked that an American baby will examine its own cradle and suggest improvements. The story is probably apocryphal, but it aptly conveys an enduring aspect of our national identity: that we are, in Mark Twain’s words, “the nation of inventors” who tinker, troubleshoot and design our way to a better world. On Thursday, Education Commission of the States released a report that explores whether the nation can live up to that reputation.

More precisely, it explores one important facet of that question: Are U.S. schools preparing students to solve problems through technology and engineering? The news is mostly good, though it includes bracing caveats. State reforms to science education have created new opportunities to learn about technology and engineering, but students still have limited and unequal access to those opportunities. (Scroll down to the bottom of this blog to see the data.)

The report, “Accelerating Gains in K-12 Engineering Education,” examines results of the 2014 and 2018 Technology and Engineering Literacy assessments. These national tests gauge eighth graders’ ability to “design … objects, processes and systems to meet human needs and wants.” Accompanying questionnaires ask schools, teachers and test takers about students’ exposure to technology and engineering, both in and out of school.

First, the good news. We found that, between 2014 and 2018:

  • Average student performance in technology and engineering literacy improved significantly.
  • Access to, and participation in, technology and engineering classes increased.
  • Students grew more likely to engage in such engineering activities as taking things apart and figuring out how to fix them.
  • Schools and teachers became better equipped to teach technology and engineering.

Advocates for technology and engineering education can take heart. Students are gaining more exposure to those subjects just five years after states began adopting sweeping science education reforms that embraced them. Five years is not a long time for such reforms to take hold.

Unfortunately, though, students are still unlikely to engage in engineering activities. Our analysis also reveals gaps in opportunity by gender, race, ethnicity and family income.

Our report examines strategies states can adopt to address these challenges and sustain progress. They can build innovative science assessments, support better curricula, train teachers and foster equitable access to equipment and teaching materials.

Such efforts might sustain the “inventive spirit” that so impressed Scottish publisher William Chambers when he visited the United States in the 1850s. Chambers believed that the budding system of American public schools nourished this spirit, and that the collections of the U.S. Patent Office embodied it. Admiring the glass cases teeming with “every variety of object in mechanical art and science,” Chambers wrote that “no other spectacle could furnish so comprehensive a notion of the inventive faculties of the Americans.”

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences reported that most American patents in 2008 had, for the first time, gone to foreign companies. Not only did this revelation wound national pride, it also raised concerns that the United States might lose the innovative vigor that has secured its prosperity.

As in the 1850s, improvements to education must fuel the nation’s inventive spirit. States can sustain their progress in technology and engineering education by remaining dedicated to implementing their science standards and ensuring that all students have opportunities to master them.

Reform at this scale will take time and staying power.

Scroll down for interactive visualizations of information from the TEL assessment. Use the tabs at the top of the dashboard to navigate among different charts.

Author profile
Principal at Education Commission of the States |

Claus oversees efforts to improve statewide longitudinal data systems and provide state-by-state data on STEM education. He has held senior positions in education policy and research for more than 17 years and has spent much of that time helping diverse stakeholders find consensus on important education issues. Claus is dedicated to ensuring that state leaders have the information and guidance they need to make the best possible decisions affecting young people.

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