Friday, July 01, 2011

Education, Innovation, Infrastructure – The Resurgence: Part V

It’s the Culture Stupid!

For the past 69 years, high school students have competed for scholarship prizes in the “Science Talent Search,” a competition that for many years was sponsored by Westinghouse, and more currently by Intel. How smart are the participants? Calling them very smart would be an understatement. Their talent is clearly indicated by the fact that finalists have achieved some of the world's most prestigious academic honors holding more than 100 of the world's most coveted science and math honors, including seven that have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Others have been awarded the Fields Medal [in Mathematics], the National Medal of Science, and the Macarthur Foundation Fellowship.

Immigrants Rule

According to a study conducted by the National Foundation for American Policy, 70 percent of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search competition––also known as the "Junior Nobel Prize"––were the children of immigrants, even though only 12 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born. According to the report, children of immigrant parents have been increasingly dominant in the fields of math and science. In 2004, for example, researchers found that 60 percent of the top science students in the U.S., and 65 percent of the top math students were born to immigrant families. Findings were based upon data from the Intel Science Talent Search and the 2004 U.S. Math Olympiad.

But this is what is equally impressive: 16 of the 40 finalists this year had parents originally from China, 10 had parents born in India, and one from South Korea. In other words 27 of the 40 finalists, or 68.5% were from parents originally from Asia.

I must enter a personal point here. As a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York, acknowledged as one of the very top science and math high schools in the country (It requires testing to be considered for admission), I checked Wikipedia to determine the composition of the current student body. It states: “For most of the 20th century, the student body at Stuyvesant was heavily Jewish. A significant influx of Asian students began in the 1970s. For the 2010 academic year, the student body was approximately 69.3% Asian and 25.7% Caucasian, 1.7% African American and 2.9% Hispanic.” [My emphasis]

Almost five years ago, in the September 2006 issue of Viewpointe (part of a five part series), I first raised the issue of an inadequate reverence for “a culture of education” amongst some minority groups, and the resulting inferior school performance of minority students. In that article I quoted from a report by Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination (C.A.R.D.), an organization whose name denotes its purpose. The report stated, “How do we lovingly, yet honestly diagnose the large economic, education, and success gap between black/Hispanic America and white/Asian America? The problem of crime, educational failure, drugs, gangs, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment that burden certain groups threaten our collective future. We need to think about these problems with a new sophistication; increasingly scholars are saying ‘culture matters.’”

The Impact of Culture

Is it more than coincidence that the Asian composition of both the Intel finalists at 68.5% and the Stuyvesant student body at 69% are so close? Note the quote from the C.A.R.D. report mentioned above that, “increasingly, scholars are saying ‘culture’ matters.” As with the pervasive penetration of a culture of education within the Jewish society, there is an equally or perhaps even stronger emphasis today on the critical importance of education in Asian (that includes India) societies. Recognition of the role that culture plays, and the impact it has on education is even more relevant today because little if any progress has been made in the U.S. in resolving the very consequential issue of minority underperformance.

Unless, and until we can inculcate the same veneration for education (those devotions that are so self evident in the Asian and Jewish communities), into our minority societies, we will continue to fall behind what is essentially a struggle for dominance in a growing global economy.

OECD Report

In a recent, very detailed and comprehensive report from the OECD (Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development), it was emphasized that “Everything else being equal, countries that place a high value on education get better educational results than countries that do not. The extent to which educational aspirations of parents are the result of cultural values or determinants of these, and how such educational aspirations interact with educational policies and practices is an important subject.” (All bolds are mine)

Also taken from that same OECD report is perhaps the most paramount statement, one that is particularly germane based on the current massive cuts in education funding taking place country-wide. Read this carefully since ignoring its findings will doom this country to permanent secondary standing. “So what is the lesson to be learned? If a country seeks better education performance, it is incumbent on the political and social leaders to persuade the citizens of that country to make the choices needed to show that it values education more than other areas of national interest. Culture is a matter of values, and some of the preceding chapters show how these values can change over time as a result of experience. If the United States does not place as high a value on education as those nations that get better education results, it is not likely to achieve the same level of education performance as those nations.”

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That expression accurately forecast the principal element that dictated the results of that year’s presidential election. The consequences of the actions we take today will determine the future success or failure of our educational system and can be epitomized with a similar declaration––“It’s the culture, stupid!”

NOTE: On the exact same date that the above article was scheduled to be submitted for publication, serendipitously, an op-ed piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal that related directly to it, and to the four preceding articles in this series. Two things make this WSJ piece unique––first, the two co-authors make strange bedfellows; second, the content provides some hope that the country is proceeding on a track that should provide for very beneficial future results. The authors are Jeb Bush, Florida’s former governor, and Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York’s public schools.

Here is some of the content: “The success of today’s students will determent our nation’s destiny. America’s economic strength and standing in the world economy are directly linked to our ability to equip students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21 st century economy. Students are no longer competing with their peers in other cities ––they are competing with students across the globe. Business leaders have become champions of education reform, recognizing the role that rigorous academic standards have on their success.”

This next paragraph highlights the deplorable nature of our education system. “Yet in all but a very few states, current academic standards of educational performance are too low. A recent analysis by ACT, the respected national organization responsible for college admissions tests, concluded that three fourths of the young men and women entering colleges ‘were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.’ In other words, their high school diplomas weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. (It is interesting to note that despite Jeb Bush’s op-ed efforts, the ACT report listed Florida as tied for the second worst performance in the nation, in this regard.)

The good news is that “the states are stepping up. Recognizing our great need for more rigorous academics, state leaders and educators have come together to create model content standards. ‘The Common Core State Standards’ were voluntarily developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and math and English experts. The standards provide a framework of clear and consistent skills for math and English. [What about science?] Already 43 states and the District of Columbia [including Florida] have signed up to adopt the standards for English and math in lieu of their previous requirements.”

For the first time, all states will eventually use the same basic academic standards, the same goals, and presumably the same tests. However, while this is an improvement, one that has taken too long to implement, I see no effort to instill in the education community the same type of belief system as that existing in the real estate community, one that honors the critical importance of the principle of “location, location, location.” The education society must establish as its rallying cry––“culture, culture, culture.”