POSITION & HOLD

Education brings tech benefits—so why does the US continue to fail so badly?

US lags far behind in science, tech, math and engineering.


There are 10 concrete steps the US can take to recapture its lead. Each deals with education—the foundation of all hope in a complex modern world.

• Get serious about overhauling the national educational system. We have had enough studies and too many excuses. It is time to begin graduating students who can succeed in an increasingly competitive high-tech world.

• Make sure teachers understand their own subjects. It’s not enough to have passed teacher’s school classes in pedagogy. No one can effectively teach math or science unless they can at least pass their course’s final exam. In Finland, home to one of the world’s most successful public school systems, would-be educators cannot even apply to teacher’s schools until they have a master’s degree in the field they plan to teach.

• Mandate merit pay to reward teachers whose students show the greatest progress. Toledo OH and a few other districts have proved that it can be done fairly and successfully.

• Help teachers improve. Assign the best to mentor those whose performance is not quite so stellar, and pay them for the extra duty.

• Studies show today’s students learn better online than in the classroom. So let them attend lectures on the Web and gather only for lab work, social interaction and other such functions. This would cut school costs and improve learning.

• Train teachers to use computers and other high-tech aids effectively. Kyle Peck, associate dean for outreach, technology and international programs at Pennsylvania State University, often uses a favorite quotation: “Technologies will not replace teachers, but teachers who use technologies well will replace those who don’t.”

• Provide advanced K–12 programs. Such programs should include science and math for gifted students who can make the best use of them.

• Emulate North Carolina’s Project Bright IDEA, chaired by veteran educator Margaret Gayle. Test scores, identification of gifted students, and student and teacher motivation have all soared since the program began 9 years ago.

• Retrain teachers to build extremely rigorous curricula from scratch. Retraining should include using business life skills, collaborative problem-solving exercises, and conceptual analysis.

• Revise immigration policies. Students seeking to study in the US—especially those pursuing careers in math and science—deserve a warm welcome. These measures are only the beginning—and yet, as first steps, they are critical.

The US cannot operate a modern high-tech economy if it lacks the well educated and trainable personnel to get the work done. Producing them is the task of a modern, effective educational system—something the US conspicuously lacks. In one of his essays, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein recalls the education his father received in a 1-room schoolhouse in Butler MO, then a tiny, remote hamlet deep in the Ozarks.

When he graduated from high school late in the 19th century, Heinlein senior was fluent in English, French, Latin and Greek. He was well grounded in world history, including not only Europe and the Americas, but Africa and Asia. He was proficient in mathematics through calculus.

He knew and understood all that was known of natural philosophy, as science then was called. This was an education suited to the high-tech world of the 21st century. Nothing like it can be had in America today. The US has neglected education for generations, and the bill is rapidly coming due. As the US sci-tech infrastructure deteriorates, those of China, India and eastern Europe are developing quickly.

High-tech companies have long “offshored” their manufacturing to other lands. In the past few years, they have begun to farm out their R&D to contract laboratories in China and India. They are doing so, not merely from the short-sighted wish to save money today, but because we are quickly running short of equally capable American technologists.

We have seen the result before, in consumer electronics and many other fields. US companies train and equip foreign scientists, only to face their competition in the years ahead, often losing markets to their former contractors.

In the past 10 years, this costly cycle has begun to consume the highest of US high-tech industries—computers and communications. In the next, it will spread to the remaining bastions of American technological supremacy—aerospace and pharmaceuticals.

By 2020, the Chinese contractors now making parts for US aircraft builders will be producing their own aircraft and eating into the last remaining markets dominated by US companies. Professional pilots will find themselves flying state-of-the-art bizjets designed and built in China by Chinese aircraft manufacturers we have not even heard of today.

Some of them may not be flying at all, if Chinese and Indian companies take over their markets. How many pilots fly for US color TV manufacturers? The answer, if you are not sure, is none, for the country that invented color TVs no longer makes them.

There is time left to head off the final decline of America’s high-tech infrastructure and the prosperity built on it. There is time to stabilize research funding in the US, and to rebuild the country’s sci-tech infrastructure. The process begins with rebuilding the American school system, so that it can provide a sound education to all who need it.

There are very few years left for delay. Whether the US will meet this increasingly critical challenge in time remains to be seen.

Marvin Cetron is a forecaster/ futurist and president of Forecasting Intl. His study for the Pentagon, Terror 2000, written in 1994, contained numerous predictions of the subsequent course of terrorism.

 

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