The Board Room is Watching! The Board Room is Watching!

Cisco's CEO and GM's Chair Talk at CES

As you know from reading B2 as well as the Citizen Herald and Patch, we here in Belmont face the prospect of wholesale cuts to our public education system including teacher layoffs at the elementary and middle school level, the elimination of foreign language instruction before high school (just what our kids need to prepare them to compete in a global economy – less foreign language instruction),  the elimination of elementary art and music programs. Its easy to get caught up in the specifics of the cuts and the budgeting (available revenue versus level service versus needs based budgets) and to start quibbling about numbers.

But the bare facts are that we here in town – as in many towns across the country – are standing on the precipice of a wholesale downgrading in the reach and quality of our public education system. Of course, Massachusetts stands head and shoulders above the rest of the country when it comes to the overall quality of taxpayer supported universal public education, and Belmont is among the top districts in Massachusetts. In other words, if you look at other states -California, Michigan, Ohio — the kind of unraveling process that we’re beginning to see is already well underway, and has been for much of the last three decades.

But its worth remembering that investments in public education aren’t just a nice to have – they correlate directly with our nation’s ability to continue innovating at the high end and, in the middle and lower tiers, producing workers capable of performing the kinds of jobs that the 21st century will demand. And those aren’t the kind of assembly line, stamp -it, weld-it, move on jobs of the 20th century. Even blue collar positions in the 21st century will require a kind of sophisticated understanding of technology, let alone the literacy and numeracy and language and communications skills that a quality primary and secondary education produce. The sad part is that its hard to see or prove a negative. We won’t be able to connect the dots between our “screw the next generation” decisions today and the lack of leadership, opportunity and innovation in 20 or 30 years. Things will be subtly crappier, other nations will create the Apples and Ciscos and Googles that may or may not decide to hire U.S. workers, and we’ll all argue about why. Some folks will suggest, rightly, that we’re reaping the sour harvest of a lost generation, educationally. Others will dispute it or point the finger elsewhere, and nobody will ever know for sure.

Fortunately (or unforunately) we can already hear the Cassandras at high levels of our society talking about the impact of the U.S.’s lack of investment in education.  Bill Gates has been warning policy makers and the public about this for years. Now more voices from the board room and private sector are joining in the chorus. Most recently, at the much-heralded Consumer Electronic Show (CES) a panel of CEOs and board members from GM, Cisco and Xerox said the U.S. eduation system was failing the country.

“We have a D minus in education, we need to work on bettering this, ” said Xerox Chairman Ursula Burns, who argued for tighter cooperation between government and the private sector to improve the education system – a model more closely aligned with that used in Western European nations like Germany.

I also noted this post on by Norm Augustine, a former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. Augustine points to the U.S. society’s tendency to downplay the importance (and status) of scientists and engineers – those who are most likely to build the businesses and industries of the future. He notes the perennially depressing  statistic that 70% of Ph.D’s in engineering from U.S. universities go to students who were foreign born. In the old days, those students might have stayed in the U.S. for lack of opportunities at home. But with Asian economies like India and China’s booming, that’s no longer true.

Part of the problem is the lack of priority U.S. parents place on core education. But there are also problems inherent in our public education system. We simply don’t have enough qualified math and science teachers. Many of those teaching math and science have never taken a university-level course in those subjects.

Developing nations have ” rightly concluded that the way to win in the world economy is by doing a better job of educating and innovating. And America? We’re losing our edge. Innovation is something we’ve always been good at. Until now, we’ve been the undisputed leaders when it comes to finding new ideas through basic research, translating those ideas into products through world-class engineering, and getting to market first through aggressive entrepreneurship.”

No longer. Some more depressing statistics:

  • The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. #48 in quality of math and science education.
  • U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the U.S. government devotes to energy R&D.
  • In 2009, for the first time, over half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
  • China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.
  • Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the U.S.  Ten years later, that number had dropped to 74.

Augustine helped co-author a report five years ago recommending changes to address the emerging U.S. competitive gap. That report’s recommendations:

  • Improve K-12 science and math education.
  • Invest in long-term basic research.
  • Attract and retain the best and brightest students, scientists and engineers in the U.S. and around the world.
  • Create and sustain incentives for innovation and research investment.

Some changes were made. Some federal dollars were directed towards scholarships to encourage more college students to become math and science teachers at the K-12 level. But its safe to assume that many of those young teachers are struggling to hold on to their jobs as districts across the nation slash staff to address a combination of a down economy and the U.S. publics fixation on low taxes. Augustine points out that since his report was issued “6 million more kids have dropped out of high school in this country. What kind of a  future will they have? Likely not a promising one.”

Global leadership is not a birthright. Despite what many Americans believe, our nation does not possess an innate knack for greatness.  Greatness must be worked for and won by each new generation. Right now that is not happening. But we still have time. If we place the emphasis we should on education, research and innovation we can lead the world in the decades to come. But the only way to ensure we remain great tomorrow is to increase our investment in science and engineering today.