In June, this column addressed faltering U.S. competitiveness in the increasingly complex world of high technology. The major reason for this, I contend, is the failing state of U.S. education at the K-12 levels on through colleges and universities, especially in science and engineering (S&E). Consider this mélange of disturbing data, combed from current studies by think-tank RAND and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS):

  • Of 1.3 million students taking college entrance exams this year, only 23% were prepared to do math, science and English required for college-level work.
  • American youth spend more time watching TV than in school and doing homework.
  • Depending on year, school and subject, 68-93% of K-12 students are taught math, science or English by teachers without a degree in these subjects but are certified as teachers (and are dues-paying members of teachers’ unions).
  • U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 24th among 40 countries on ability to apply math to real-world problems. U.S. 12th graders performed below the world average in math and science competence. Employers report that a majority of college graduates lack basic skills in critical thinking, writing and problem solving.
  • In this decade, 38% of U.S. PhD candidates in S&E (and in the U.S. workforce) were awarded to foreign nationals.
  • Last year, undergraduate enrollment in S&E (as a part of total student population) was 38% in South Korea, 47% in France, 50% in China and 67% in Singapore.
  • More CEOs of S&P-500 companies have college degrees in S&E than any other field.
  • The U.S. is a net importer of high-technology products (manufactured goods).
  • In the past five years, 110 of 120 large chemical factories in the U.S. were closed or slated for closure. Of new, large ($1 billion invested) factories worldwide, one is in the U.S. and 50 are in China. Two major reasons for this are strangling U.S. regulations and non-availability of suitable technical management.
  • A dearth of S&E-trained Americans is one of the greatest threats to military security of the nation, according to a Sept. 8, 2008, Pentagon report, with concurring comments by David Tillotson (Air Force CIO), Gordon England (Deputy Secretary of Defense) and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson (Army CIO).
It takes nothing more than a bit of experience and common sense to understand that failing American K-12 school systems create ineptitude by not arming their young charges with adequate tools to pursue a university S&E education, which has a higher degree of difficulty than most other education paths. Public school teachers and their entrenched bureaucracies have failed to perform and are directly responsible for student incompetence. Every indication is that the U.S. is imperiled by this condition, and most of the population is unaware, unconcerned and unprepared to meet the consequences of this danger.

The RAND study is a weak apologist for a status quo in American education with rationale such as the U.S. “spends significantly more per student than other industrialized nations.” I, however, would substitute the key word “spends” with “wastes.” Study authors suggest a remedy like establishing a permanent, funded entity “responsible for periodic monitoring, critically reviewing and analyzing U.S. performance and the condition of the S&E workforce.” Could RAND possibly establish and operate such an entity for the U.S. government? Just a wild guess.

The NAS was asked by Congress to examine the same issues. While not all their recommendations may be practical, it is a far superior assessment and included these specifics:
  • Annually recruit 10,000 science and mathematics teachers for K-12 level by awarding four-year, $20,000 scholarships.
  • Strengthen the skills of 250,000 teachers annually through “re-education” during summer.
  • Increase federal investment in basic research by 10% a year for seven years.
  • Provide new research grants of $500,000, payable annually over five years, to 200 of the nation’s best early career researchers.
  • Allocate at least 8% of budgets for federal R&D to “discretionary funding.”
  • Create in the Department of Energy an organization like DARPA has in the DOD.
  • Incentivize S&E education by providing 25,000 four-year scholarships at $20,000 each for U.S. citizens attending U.S. institutions.
  • Increase U.S. citizen pursuit of graduate S&E studies by providing 5,000 fellowships annually at $30,000 each.
  • Provide federal tax credits for employers to sponsor continuing S&E education.
  • Improve visa processing and one-year automatic extension for foreign graduates of S&E programs and provide work-permit enhancements.
This is a serious national concern that must be addressed before it is too late to recover. As part of the industrial backbone of the nation, you are all strongly urged to be involved in the solution. IH