Are We Losing the War For Innovation? Part II
A Prairie Home Companion is the name of a popular radio show. After running for some 32 years it has become almost legendary in nature, so much so, in an attempt to capitalize on its fame, a movie by that name opened about a month ago. Garrison Keillor, the real-life creator and host of the radio program wrote the script and starred in the movie directed by the famous Robert Altman. I can attest to the fact that the movie is just as entertaining as the radio program (just as long as you don’t hate Country & Western music). Keillor has become famous for his tales of Lake Wobegon and the amusing characters that inhabit that imaginary place. He describes them by proclaiming that, “The women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Unfortunately, not all averages are amusing, and many can be viewed by applying the comment made by Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) some 150 years ago when he said, “Figures don’t lie, liars figure.” Nevertheless, some statistics are helpful, especially in evaluating student progress in schools—most of the numbers, unfortunately, belying the misguided belief that “all the children are above average.”
For example, the statistics resulting from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT’s) provide what is, for the most part, an extremely disturbing insight into the shortcomings of our public educational system, a system that must be relied upon to insure America’s historic domination of the fields of science and technology. FCAT is the admittedly controversial standard testing device used in primary and secondary public schools in Florida. (The controversial aspect of these tests, while worthy of further discussion, is too complicated to address here.) In essence however, the statistical results of those tests could be considered a scorecard for America’s progress in what might be termed “The War For Innovation.”
Florida FCAT scores are used here instead of national scores because of the huge amount of local publicity (good and bad) devoted to the subject. As a frame of reference, using a different set of measurements on a national basis, amongst the states, Florida ranks 29 th in 4 th grade Reading, and in Math 39 th. In 8 th grade Reading nationally, Florida is 32 nd, and 35 th in Math. However, despite those rankings, Florida is just slightly above or below the national averages in all categories. (It is hoped that you will be intensively interested in these results, since it is your tax money that is being used for educational purposes.)
The average test scores recently published for the state of Florida deal with reading and math, and these scores are compiled for each grade level, 3 through 10. Speaking of averages, the results are dismal at best. For example, in 2006, fully one quarter of children in 3 rd grade read below level 3, a level considered to be only “a partial success with the challenging content”—and it gets worse from there. For each succeeding grade the number of students reading at or above the levels 3-5 is as follows: 3 rd Grade, 72%; 4 th Grade, 66%; 5 th Grade, 67%; 7 th Grade, 61%; 8 th Grade, 46 %; 9 th Grade, 40%; 10 th Grade, 32%. Here again the 3-5 averages are skewed since the majority consist of those reading at level 3, with only 2%-7% reading at level 5. Can you imagine that some two thirds of 10 th graders cannot read at a level considered as competent?
The average scores for Math are almost identical to the reading scores in grades 3 and 4—however, only in the 50%-60% range in Grades 5, through 9, and strangely jump to 65% in grade 10. One might argue that the test scores in Palm Beach County would be higher since it is presumably a wealthier segment of Florida with a population that is ostensibly better educated—not so. Reading scores are within 1%-2% of the total Florida scores. I do not have the Math score averages for Palm Beach county.
Unfortunately, averages don’t tell the whole story. For example, there is a school in Palm Beach County where only 1% of the 9 th Grade students are above level 3 in Reading and 8% of that same group are above level 3 in Math; only 2% and 10 % of 10 th Graders in that school are above level 3 in Reading and Math respectively. On the other hand, the top scoring school in Palm Beach County for Grades 4 and 5 in Reading and Math is the nearby Del Prado School with Reading scores at 86% and 90%, and Math scores at 89% and 92%.
How does all this relate to the diminishing role the United States seems to be playing in what might be termed “The War for Innovation”? The following is part of a report entitled “A Nation at Risk,” issued by the U.S. Department of Education: “Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”
If ever there was a more prescient evaluation of ‘things to come,” I can’t imagine what it might be. You see, this report was published 23 years ago, in 1983. The report continued by stating, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Unfortunately, as appropriate this depiction was 23 years ago, those two paragraphs probably provide an even more accurate description of our educational position today then it did then. Sadly, we are in a worse position today then we were 23 years ago.
In fact, in a special section in the May 29 th issue of U.S. News & World Report headlined “The Danger of Drift,” David Gergen refers to the above report in the following manner: “Twenty three years have passed since a national commission warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in our K-12 schools. After many efforts to improve, test scores are modestly better, especially in early grades. But progress has been excruciatingly slow and uneven. High school dropout rates haven’t improved. Only a third finish high school ready for college, and even fewer, 18 percent, actually finish college within six years of high school graduation. ‘So much reform, so little change,’ one observer said ruefully.”
Gergen then refers to the problematic future position of the United States, writing, “Not only have we failed to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, and between minorities and whites, but our young people now face growing pressure from Asian students hungry for a better life. ‘When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad’ said Bill Gates, ‘I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.’”
Gergen then elaborates further, “Troubles in K-12 spill over into universities, where the United States today is pressed to stay ahead as China, India, and other nations pour investment into science, engineering, and technology education. Larry Summers, Harvard’s outgoing president, once estimated that of the top research universities in the world, as least seven, and arguably 10, are now American, but 25 years from now, at least five could be in Asia. Already, more than twice as many engineers, computer scientists, and information technologists are graduating in China as in the United States. All of this suggests that to maintain its edge, America no longer needs evolution in its schools—we need revolution”
In October of last year, a real wake-up call was issued in the form of a most significant and devastatingly critical report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” The authors of the report, a highly distinguished group of experts in science, engineering, and medicine, all members of various National Academies collectively known as the National Academies, were requested by Congress “to conduct an assessment of America’s ability to compete and prosper in the 21 st century—and to propose appropriate actions to enhance the likelihood of success in that endeavor.”
Here is probably the most salient conclusion of this very important report to Congress: “Human capital—the quality of our work force—is a particularly important factor in our competitiveness. Our public school system comprises the foundation of this asset. But as it exists today, that system compares, in the aggregate, abysmally with those of other developed—and even developing-nations…particularly in the fields which underpin most innovation: science, mathematics and technology.” [My emphasis.]
The validity of that statement is obvious when viewed from the perspective of the poor student performance reflected by the FCAT scores. But there is much more to that report and it will be covered at greater length in next months article.