America's Education Problem Isn't Money, It's How We Spend It

Students from the United States are falling behind.


Norm Augustine is the  former CEO of Lockheed Martin. Here is a little quiz: What do Mozambique and the United States have in common? And should anyone care?

The answer: Of all the nations surveyed by the National Science Foundation, these two nations most closely match each other in the fraction of their college graduates who receive degrees in engineering (about four in 100), ranking them in the bottom 15 of the 93 nations studied, just ahead of Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Cameroon. So why care? The answer is because there is a good chance your next job, and that of your children and grandchildren, will be created by a scientist or engineer, and it would presumably be nice if that job were to be in the United States.A number of studies have shown that 50 to 85 percent of the growth in America's GDP is attributable to advancements in science and engineering. And based on the experience of the past 50 years, each percent increase in GDP corresponds to an increase of about 1 million jobs. This is important, particularly when staring at a 15 percent real unemployment rate—as is the case in the United States today.The Journal of International Commerce and Economics estimates that the 700 engineers creating the iPod were accompanied by 14,000 other workers in the United States and 25,000 abroad. Steve Jobs is said to have told President Obama that the reason Apple employs 700,000 people outside the United States is because it couldn't find 30,000 engineers in the United States.Such is the current "leakage rate" in producing new engineers that to add one new Ph.D. in engineering in the year 2029 requires starting with a pool of 3,100 eighth graders. One reason is that, as reported by the College Board, 43 percent of college-bound high school seniors are not prepared to do college work. Another is found in a Washington Post article headlined, "How to Get Good Grades in College." A subhead read, "Don't Study Engineering."[ Check out U.S. News's STEM education center.]So what is to be done? Six years ago the U.S. Congress, on a bipartisan basis (remember that?), asked the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to answer that same question. A committee was established that consisted of 20 members—university presidents, CEOs, Nobel laureates, and former presidential appointees—that became known as the Gathering Storm committee after the title of the report it issued. The conclusion was that the single most important thing to do to enhance America's competitiveness was to fix the nation's K-12 public education system—with its 14,000 school districts, 49 million students, and over 3 million teachers. A few of the Gathering Storm committee's recommendations have now been implemented, but many have not. And in the meantime, another 7 million youths have dropped out of high school to face a bleak future.It should of course not go unnoticed that a new education city costing $2 billion is being constructed; that a new technical university has been founded with an opening-day endowment greater than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has accumulated in its 150 years of existence; and that next year over 200,000 students will study abroad, mostly in the fields of science and engineering, often under government-provided scholarships. Also, government investment in non-defense R&D is set to increase by 25 percent over the next few years; a multiyear initiative is under way to make the country a global nanotechnology hub; and the world's most powerful particle accelerator is now in operation. Furthermore, a high-level commission has conducted a follow-on to the Gathering Storm study with the objective of creating more jobs at home.[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]The problem is that these actions were taken not by the United States, but rather by Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, the United Kingdom, India, Switzerland, and Australia, respectively. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has stated: "Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries, and the rise and fall of nations. … I firmly believe that science is the ultimate revolution." Backing words with actions, China today graduates more English-trained engineers than does the United States. In international standardized tests, the ranking of U.S. 15-year-olds has now fallen to 17th in science and 25th in math among the 34 participating developed nations. And it is not just America's average students who perform poorly; our top students are generally not competitive either. Just-released tests of eighth graders in U.S. schools show little improvement and Harvard's Program of Education Policy and Governance ranks the U.S. high school class of 2011 as 32nd in math among those of 34 developed countries. Fully 70 percent of our nation's youths are ineligible to serve in the armed forces because of mental, physical, or moral shortcomings.