Many of you are familiar with Thomas Friedman’s argument, in The World is Flat, that technology has eliminated many barriers to competition and thus created today’s globally competitive economic environment. His dramatic examples of outsourcing show that key services, including high-level engineering and scientific tasks, can be effectively accomplished without regard to the workers’ physical location. This allows imaginative businesses to tap talent from around the globe, often at considerable savings.
Friedman, a foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, uses this evidence to reach some alarming conclusions about how America will fare in the future. After establishing the central thesis that location is no longer a significant advantage in producing high-value commodities and services, he examines the conditions that America must meet to continue holding a dominant economic position. He gives appropriate attention to innovation and then, like so many others, concludes that for us to compete successfully, America must put far greater emphasis on education. He is especially emphatic about the need for more rigor and a larger number of qualified graduates from our higher education institutions.
Hot on the heels of Friedman’s book came Rising Above the Gathering Storm, a report from America’s most prestigious scientific organizations—the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Their special Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, including many of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers, produced the report. They document in great detail, for example, how the production of scientists and engineers in America pales in comparison to nations like India and China.
The report predicts economic doom unless we can make major changes, including increasing both the quality and quantity of mathematical and scientific education. Recommendations include higher standards for students, better preparation for teachers, considerable incentives to students and teachers to develop their mathematical and scientific capacities, and a significant investment in higher education. The price is high, but the stakes are too.
All over the nation there are now committees and commissions addressing the apparent deficiencies in education, current and projected. Washington State is no exception, with Washington Learns, the Governor’s Commission on Global Competitiveness, and several other committees, alliances, and associations producing recommendations focused on improving our educational system.
Some years ago, the noted popular historian Barbara Tuchman wrote The March of Folly. This challenging book includes historical accounts of societies that were on a destructive course and stayed on that course in spite of widespread understanding of the problem. Tuchman recognizes that when a society develops certain habits of behavior, changing directions takes enormous collective effort.
My favorite example in Tuchman’s book is the British treatment of the American colonies prior to the American Revolution. She notes that the king and parliament were presented with numerous internal reports predicting that there would be a colonial reaction to prolonged and egregious economic exploitation. But that exploitation was so fundamental to British policies and behavior that even the American Revolution did not result in fundamental changes.
We must hope that we are not on a “march of folly” with our educational system in America. The current spate of reports and alarms is only the latest and loudest in response to trends that go back nearly two decades. We have long known that American children do not perform as well as European or Asian children in standardized tests for mathematical skills and scientific knowledge and that they fall further behind with each year of school. Across the nation, the numbers of American-born students completing college degrees in science and engineering are actually declining, while these numbers are exploding in other regions of the world.
In the state of Washington, our high-school dropout rates are actually increasing, and the percentage of the state budget going to education is decreasing, with the greatest decreases occurring in higher education. Rather than providing incentives for our best students to continue their education, we are shifting costs to them with higher tuition and fees. And, while the cost of building and maintaining modern science and engineering laboratories is growing at double-digit rates, the public budgets for capital development in higher education have remained fixed for more than a decade.
At Washington State University, we are working to be part of the solution. We are strengthening our undergraduate curriculum, developing better science teachers, and putting our students in a research environment that we believe will better prepare them to compete. Our highest capital priorities place modern teaching and research laboratories at the top of our list.
However, increasing the numbers of students prepared to pursue our offerings and expanding our capacity to accommodate them will depend on hard decisions about standards and budgets that must be made now. The current literature clearly tells us that we have critical needs that we are not addressing. The unanswered question is whether our society can change directions when we know the negative consequences of where we are presently headed.