EDUCATION AND SOCIAL ISSUES

U.S. Research Universities

©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

For more than a century, U.S. research universities have been incubators for American prosperity and ingenuity. Research at these institutions has played an essential role in the development of game-changing inventions such as lasers, computers, and blood thinners. And graduates have created and propelled businesses that employ millions of Americans.

While U.S. research universities are still among the best in the world, they are in danger of serious decline, warns Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security. The report urges the federal government, states, industries, and universities to renew a long tradition of strong, mutually beneficial partnerships.

Universities are facing critical challenges that threaten to erode the quality of research and education these institutions can provide, the report says. Federal funding for research has flattened or declined. State funding has also dropped over the last decade -- by more than 20 percent on average and by as much as 50 percent in some cases. At the same time, other countries have increased R&D funding and are pouring significant resources into their own institutions.

To address these issues, Congress and the administration should fully fund the America COMPETES Act, which would double the level of basic research supported by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies.

As budgets recover from the recession, state governments should strive to restore and maintain per-student funding for higher education to levels equal to the period of 1987-2002, as adjusted for inflation. Businesses, which have long relied on research universities for talent and technology, should also partner with universities in early-stage research and graduate education.

The report calls on the nation's research universities to significantly increase their cost-effectiveness and productivity while raising graduation rates, reducing the time needed to complete degrees, and aligning doctoral programs with careers.

The National Research Council study was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Energy.

Twenty-first Century Knowledge and Skills

©Photodisc/Thinkstock

Business, political, and educational leaders are increasingly calling on schools to teach students a range of broad skills they will need to navigate a rapidly changing world -- skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication. Such skills are often referred to as "21st century skills" or "deeper learning."

These skills are best developed within the teaching and learning of academic subjects and are key to helping students master academic subject matter, says Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. By engaging in deeper learning, students go beyond rote learning of facts and procedures to understand underlying principles. They develop knowledge and skills that can be transferred to solve new problems and navigate new situations in a subject area.

This type of learning will be needed to meet the goals set by the new state standards for English language arts, mathematics, and science. But creating school environments that support deeper learning and the development of 21st century competencies in these disciplines will require changes in teaching methods, curricula, and assessments.

The federal and state governments should support this shift, establishing policies and programs to help students develop transferable knowledge and skills. For example, in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress should support the systemic development, implementation, and evaluation of measures to facilitate deeper learning and students' development of 21st century competencies.

The National Research Council study was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Pearson Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Susan Crown Exchange Fund, and Stupski Foundation.

Monitoring Progress in STEM Education

©Creatas/Jupiterimages/Thinkstock

Many states are adopting rigorous common core standards in mathematics and science for students in kindergarten through grade 12. These new policy initiatives provide an opportunity to address challenges that have been identified in students' performance and persistence in these fields.

Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K-12 STEM Education: A Nation Advancing? proposes a set of indicators that can be used by school districts, states, and federal agencies to monitor progress and improve education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Each indicator is linked directly to a recommendation from a 2011 National Research Council report that has informed the development of the core standards. The proposed indicators focus on key aspects of teaching and learning rather than on administrative or enrollment data. Over time, they would measure progress in students' access to quality learning, educators' capacity to teach STEM subjects, and policy and funding initiatives for STEM education.

The report offers a framework for a national reporting and monitoring system that would measure student knowledge, interest, and participation in the STEM disciplines; track local, state, and federal investments in K-12 STEM education; provide information about the STEM education work force; and facilitate strategic planning for federal investments and work-force development. If implemented, such a monitoring system could provide needed data to make informed decisions about improving K-12 STEM education.

The Research Council study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Economics of an Aging Nation

©BananaStock/Jupiterimages/Getty Images

The demographic profile of the United States is undergoing a major shift to an older population. While much focus has been on aging baby boomers, the trend is likely to persist well into future generations. An aging population will have broad economic consequences for the country, particularly for federal programs that support the elderly.

The nation has many good options for responding to population aging, but the transition to sustainable policies will be smoother and less costly if steps are taken now, says Aging and the Macroeconomy: Long-Term Implications of an Older Population.

Together, the costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid currently total roughly 40 percent of all federal spending and 10 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Because of overall longer life expectancy and lower birth rates, these programs will have more beneficiaries with relatively fewer workers contributing to support them in the coming decades. Population aging will drive up public health care expenditures and make these programs unsustainable unless action is taken.

Adapting to this new economic landscape entails costs and policy options with different implications for the different generations that will bear the costs or receive the benefits. According to the report, the ultimate national response will likely be some combination of major structural changes to public support programs, more savings during people's working years, and longer working lives. In addition, workers can better prepare for retirement by planning ahead and adapting their saving and spending habits.

The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Department of Treasury with supplemental funding from the National Institute on Aging.

Deterrence and the Death Penalty

©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

For decades, researchers have tried to determine whether the death penalty deters murder. Though many studies have attempted to provide the answer, they offer conflicting results.

Deterrence and the Death Penalty concludes that the research to date does not provide evidence for or against the proposition that the death penalty affects homicide rates and should not serve as a basis to inform policy decisions. What's more, the studies are not asking the right question: Is capital punishment more effective as a deterrent than alternative punishments, such as a life sentence without the possibility of parole?

The report finds that studies on the death penalty thus far are based on implausible or unsupported assumptions about potential murderers' perceptions of and response to capital punishment. Many studies have simply assumed that potential murderers respond to the actual risk of execution, though there is no basis for that assumption. Moreover, determining the actual risk poses great complexities even for well-informed researchers, let alone would-be murderers. For instance, only 15 percent of people who have been sentenced to death since 1976 have actually been executed, and a large fraction of death sentences are reversed.

These intrinsic shortcomings severely limit what can be learned from the existing research, the report says. Researchers should collect data that consider both capital and noncapital punishments for murder and use statistical methods based on more credible assumptions about the effect of capital punishment on homicide rates.

The National Research Council study was funded by the Tides Foundation, Proteus Action League, and National Institute of Justice.

Security at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Photo courtesy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

To better secure and manage the border between the United States and Mexico, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has stepped up its enforcement efforts over the past decade. While the number of unauthorized migrants apprehended at the border has decreased during that time, one cannot attribute the decrease to enforcement without an estimate of the number of attempted border crossings during the same period.

Options for Estimating Illegal Entries at the U.S.-Mexico Border finds that making such an estimate will require modeling approaches that combine data from existing U.S. and Mexican household, migration, and border crossing surveys with data from DHS's enforcement database. In order to develop, refine, and continually validate such complex modeling approaches, DHS will need to engage with the broader scientific community and make its data widely available to researchers. DHS could use a variety of approaches to protect potentially sensitive information in the database.

The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.