Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Education, Innovation, Infrastructure – The Resurgence: Part I

“When something happens that is agreeable but unexpected, that phenomenon is called serendipity. The term is derived from an old name for the island of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), Serendip. The famous English writer, Horace Walpole, in a letter written to Horace Mann in 1754, coined the word itself. Walpole created the word based, as he wrote, on ‘a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’”

The above is a quote from an article that appeared in this column almost ten years ago describing a situation that does not warrant repeating here, but thanks to President Obama it also accurately illustrates a new serendipitous development. In his recent State of the Nation speech, the president emphasized his intent to focus on education, innovation, and infrastructure. Serendipitously, each of those three issues was covered in great depth in this column a few years ago.

In June 2006, the first article of a five-part series titled “Are We Losing the War For Innovation?” was published. That series underscored the serious deficiencies in our educational system and the crucial relationship between education and innovation. In August 2008, a similarly comprehensive five-part series titled, “Infrastructure Insanity” appeared in this newspaper describing the grave condition of our crumbling infrastructure.

The critical nature of the president’s call for action is accentuated by the fact that in the nearly five years since the “innovation” articles were published, and in the more than two and a half years since the “infrastructure” articles were presented, while some of the numbers may have changed slightly, the articles as written then could be reproduced almost word for word today, and would still be relevant. Unfortunately, the status of education, innovation, and infrastructure in our country, dismal then, remains perhaps even more so today.

Of even more concern are the consequences for the future of the country if the problems associated with these issues are not resolved. Nations cannot prosper, nor will innovation flourish with a poorly educated populace. A decaying, inadequately maintained, and antiquated infrastructure (physical and technological) will impede growth and our ability to compete in a rapidly moving world. President Obama believes that efforts to solve these problems are investments in our future. Opponents see them as an excuse to spend money and adversely affect efforts to reduce the deficit. My role here is the messenger, presenting the issues; your role will be to determine which of these arguments is correct.

What follows are combinations of quotes from the articles mentioned above (they will be in italics with quote marks), as well as more updated information that is more timely.


"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." In analyzing the above paragraph, despite what you might think, the key word in it is “today.” The reference here was written almost exactly 28 years ago, April 1983 to be exact. Yet, most unfortunately, the words are even more valid, certainly more consequential now than they were then.

A Nation At Risk

The above quote was included in a report titled, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform,” requested by Congress, and produced by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Initially ignored by, but later strongly embraced by President Ronald Reagan, Its publication is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history. The report determined that the system of education in the United States was failing to meet the needs of the competitive workforce, citing deteriorating SAT results, unsatisfactory test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (considered the nation's report card), and unacceptable graduation rates. It most famously said that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was threatening our nation, and the report offered 38 recommendations to turn things around.

On the 25th anniversary (2008) of the release of A Nation at Risk, the nonpartisan organization Strong American Schools released a report card of our nation's progress since the initial (1983) report. The organization's analysis said: “While the national conversation about education would never be the same, stunningly few of the Commission’s recommendations actually have been enacted. Without vigorous national leadership to improve education, states and local school systems simply cannot overcome the obstacles to making the big changes necessary to significantly improve our nation’s K-12 schools.” (My underline.)

Rising Above the Gathering Storm

Exactly five years ago, another report was requested by Congress (that’s the one thing they know how to do well), this time from the prestigious National Academies of Science. Titled, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” This request was the result of a recognized fear that, as described in the report, “The danger exists that Americans may not know enough about science, technology, or mathematics to significantly contribute to, or fully benefit from, the knowledge-based society that is already taking shape around us. Moreover, most of us do not have enough understanding of the importance of those skills to encourage our children to study those subjects—both for their career opportunities and for their general benefit. Other nations have learned from our history, however, and they are boosting their investments in science and engineering education because doing so pays immense economic and social dividends.” The 49-page report summed up its recommendations as follows:
  1. Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education;

  2. Sustain and strengthen the nation's commitment to long-term basic research;

  3. Develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from both the U.S. and abroad; and;

  4. Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world for innovation.

(Remember what entity has been requesting these reports. Have you seen any evidence that Congress has expressed tangible evidence of initiating or implementing these, or much of any other past recommendations?)

As documented in the July 2006 issue of Viewpointe, “Here is probably the most salient characteristic 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.)’” It is astonishing, unthinkable, to believe that this criticism was voiced five years ago, and yet that statement is strikingly just as irrefutable today as it was then.

Where’s the Reform?

Once again, it is five years later and the exact same sentiments apply, so that statement too could be reproduced as if it was actually written today. But that’s been the history of the education reform issue for some 60 years, starting with Harry Truman, progressing through just about every president (and Congress) since, with none achieving the hoped for goals.

A predominant indicator of our education failings is the high school graduation rate. The 2006 article in Viewpointe provided these statistics: “Unfortunately, the deeper one digs into the subject of educational deficiencies in our country the more depressing the details––some of the numbers are stunning. According to a March 6 th [2006] report from the Alliance For Excellence in Education, ‘Nationally, only about two thirds of the students who enter 9 th grade will graduate with a regular diploma four or five years later. That’s almost 1.3 million students who didn’t graduate from U.S. high schools costing the nation more than $325 billion in lost wages, taxes , and productivity over their lifetimes.’”

Exactly five years later (2011), the Alliance’s newest report contains equally disheartening numbers: Again, 1.3 million high school dropouts; an increase to $357 billion in lost wages, etc; and some minimally improved graduation rates moving from 66 percent to 69 percent. Correspondingly, that still leaves almost one in three children without a high school degree in a rapidly globalizing world in which we must compete. From a worldwide perspective (that’s the most relevant and realistic view that must be observed), the potential for the United States to sustain a position of educational dominance is bleak.

In a speech on February 19th, President Obama stated, “If we want to win the global competition for new jobs and industries, we’ve got to win the global competition to educate our people,” Obama said. “We’ve got to have the best-trained, best-skilled workforce in the world. That’s how we’ll ensure that the next Intel, the next Google, or the next Microsoft is created in America, and hires American workers.”

Earlier on that same day, at 4:40 A.M., after days of contentious debate and hundreds of amendments, the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive spending bill that would keep the government running through Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, which ends September 30. The bill makes more than $60 billion in cuts, including a $5 billion cut to the U.S. Department of Education. The bill passed on a party-line vote of 235–189, with three Republicans joining 186 Democrats who voted unanimously against the bill. Ironic? Absolutely; Coincidental? Maybe; Serendipitous? I don’t think so.

More on this, and on Infrastructure next month.