Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Wrong Educational Focus Will Hurt Our Economy

It seems like every time a new study is published ranking American schoolchildren with those of other nations, we rank ever abysmally lower than before. From the trend, it appears that the solutions being generally applied are akin to C.S. Lewis’ analogy of people frantically running around with fire extinguishers during a flood.

The areas of greatest concern revolve around the core subjects of science and math, commonly called the hard sciences. Some are inclined to think, “So what? I hated those subjects when I was in school. Why are they so important?”

Kathryn Wallace has an interesting article on this subject in the December 2005 Readers Digest (America’s Brain Drain Crisis – sorry, no electronic version available). In it she documents how much of America’s economic prowess is built on our scientific and technological advances. She quotes several experts to make her point, including David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology and a Nobel Laureate, who says, “We can’t hope to keep intact our standard of living, our national security, our way of life, if Americans aren’t competitive in science. Period.”

Given where the upcoming generation stands, those are pretty sobering words. If you understand how Nobel laureates are chosen, you have to take Baltimore’s words with a grain of salt. Still, he has a point.

We are producing steadily fewer graduates in the hard sciences, while many other countries are graduating steadily more. In 2000 China graduated 56% in hard sciences while the U.S. graduated 17%, a sharp decline for the U.S. from three decades ago.

Moreover, Wallace notes that our supply of nerdy smart foreign immigrants is drying up. It used to be that many came to the U.S. because they could not get a world-class education in their home countries, but that is changing. Many are staying home because university programs in hard sciences in their own countries are achieving world-class status.

Paul Goss notes here “there is ample reason to worry that America's longstanding lead in science is slipping away. … A recent National Academy of Sciences report concludes that "Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living."”

The problem doesn’t originate in our universities, but in our K-12 education. Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel, has been running around blasting the “dismal” quality of our K-12 math and science programs (see here, here and here). Wallace quotes Bill Gates as recently saying, “Our high schools, even when they’re working exactly as designed, cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.”

Barrett says what many other CEOs are confirming. American business is going for offshore talent not simply because it is cheap, but because “It's well-educated labor that can do effectively any job that can be done in the United States.” Many managers complain about the inability to domestically hire the type of people they need.

What do we do? If you ask those involved in K-12 education, the answer will always be the same: “Give us more money.” But Wallace says, “Don’t blame school budgets. We shell out more than $440 billion each year on public education, and spend more per capita than any nation save Switzerland.” Yet we still rank 24th in math, tied with Latvia.

Wallace quotes Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association as saying, “The highest predictor of student performance boils down to teacher knowledge.” But she notes that about a third of our 7-12 math and science teachers are inadequately qualified to teach their subjects. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) questions, “How can you pass on a passion to your students if you don’t know the subject?”

We need serious reform of our K-12 educational priorities. Some state and local governments are trying a variety of measures. Many business and philanthropic efforts are underway. But all of these together are insignificant given the sheer size of the problem. There are some things Congress can and should do, but we need to be careful about feeding more cash to the ever-growing centralized bureaucratic monster.

In fact, that bureaucratic monster is part of the problem. In her article, Wallace shows how other countries are staffing their governments with grads from the hard sciences. One of the most sobering lines in the article comes from a professor at Georgia Tech, who said, “That’s quite a difference from a government made up of lawyers.”

We need to wake people up and get them to realize what is at stake. When large numbers of people understand the nature of the problem, we can have public discourse on the matter that will help us fashion both private and public efforts to confront it. If we don’t, the ultimate cost will be enormous.


steve u. said...

Excellent post! I thought the legislature addressed the problem in 2003 with SB 154, which was supposed to focus our schools more on the core curriculum. But, as you point out, it isn't working out that way. More work to do.

I'm hoping to take a step forward this year with a math 4-6 initiative. If students don't successfully make the leap from numeric to algebraic skills during those grades (as is the case for many of our students), we've lost them as potential engineers before they even hit high school.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely undeniable truth!! I did read this article and found much truth.As I look down the road to retirement within my own field of endeavor, I see my own organization already beginning to struggle with the loss of techno-savy recruits to other pursuits. My group is definetly " greybeards" of the times. There is already talk of moving engineering overseas. This article is right on the mark