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Home » Chalk Talk – American Progress Requires a New Focus on Competitiveness – In All Arenas

February, 2006

To recapture some of the enterprises we’ve lost to other nations and to keep our edge in yet others, President Bush introduced what he called the American Competitiveness Initiative in his State of the Union, a plan to spark more advances in technology in the United States. It’s no surprise that one of his aims is to increase the proficiency of our nation’s students in math and science, two areas where U.S. achievement has often fallen dramatically short in comparison to other industrialized countries, and improvement in which alone could revitalize America’s economic outlook.

This is an important focus, to be sure, and one that the nation’s governors and leading CEOs have recently embraced as well. Competitive juices flow in the American blood stream. Falling behind in research and technology affects the psyche, affects the economy, and spurs us to redouble our efforts to catch up. It happened in the 70s when Japanese advances threatened U.S. industries. It is happening again now.

Renewed commitment to excellence in the sciences is critical, especially if we are to survive and thrive in a world that, as author Thomas Friedman puts it, is flat – where shoe-string entrepreneurs successfully go toe-to-toe with corporations on a global scale. Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of The American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the Associated Press, “We could very easily lose the fragile lead we now have if we don’t make the critical investments [in science and technology] right now.”

That investment must include bringing the spirit – and reality – of competition to bear on education. While many educational problems exist, deficiencies in math and science education are legion. It is ironic that the very notion that drives Americans to improve and excel among all other countries in industry – competition – is not more uniformly accepted as a driver of change for schools, even in the face of its proven success. Falling behind in education should cause us to rise up and demand the same competitiveness in our schools that marks our best efforts in industry.

The president’s initiative proposes spending an additional $380 million in Federal support to improve math, science and technology education. This would train existing teachers and bring in new teachers with expertise in math and science. Such efforts are commendable, but they barely touch the real cause of our achievement woes in the physical sciences. Teachers are hired and paid to teach math and science regardless of their knowledge in those areas. Fully 59 percent of all 8th grade math teachers did not major in math, according to the Department of Education. Meanwhile, individuals who do excel in the hard sciences are discouraged from entering the field by the uniform pay scales and lack of respect for merit that typifies – and stultifies – the teaching profession, while those engineers, computer scientists and physicists wanting to transition into the teaching field must first wade through dull, irrelevant higher education course work to be accepted, all in all severely stifling that noble call to teaching.

The solution lies in committing to the same notion of competitiveness in schooling as we have for the economy as a whole. When schools have incentives to do well, they offer programs to fill a niche to attract their prime customers, parents and teachers. Take the advent of new public schools called charter schools. These schools are open by choice, are closed if they fail to perform, and meet the same general standards of accountability that all public schools must meet. But without the burden of undue bureaucratic regulation and assembly-line mindset, they become an oasis for math, science and technology innovations in education at a time when such a focus has gone missing in conventional public education.

Today nearly 100 charter schools are specifically geared towards math and science curriculum, and a few dozen with similar concentrations await approval in their states. And these new, innovative public schools have pushed conventional public schools to expand their math and science curriculum to compete.

Tennessee will soon be home to three Math and Science Academies in its major urban areas. In Los Angeles, High Tech High set the standard for new high schools, operating in seven locations with ten more approved to open over the next several years. The Charter School of Wilmington delivers a strong science program, and is the best high school in that city. In Philadelphia, architects helped spawn the Charter High School for Architecture, and the Henry Ford Charter School in Detroit teaches the basics plus technical skills.

These schools address core deficiencies, but only came about because competitiveness was introduced into states’ public school systems through charter laws. These and other school choice measures which permit students to attend other public or even private schools where math and science standards are more rigorous and more focused can help produce the kind of qualitative change in America that the president is seeking. Competition in schooling does indeed get the same result as competition in the economy.

In addition to such incentives in education delivery, we must open the teaching profession in every state to seasoned math and science professionals without expecting them to go back to school before they can teach. We must also pay them differently – their specialized skills and know-how, for any teacher of the sciences, are clearly worth more today to this nation and its upcoming generations of professionals than those of other subjects. That’s not to malign the importance of history or English, where American students similarly suffer achievement lags. But it is to say that in order to jumpstart strong educational programs, we must be willing to invest more heavily in new and existing talent to draw them to a system that has long been noncommittal about the importance of science.

Differential pay, alternative certification, school choice, charter schools and high standards – these are the core ingredients which together make the president’s quest possible. The president’s initiative is one step in the right direction, but let us also embrace a broader view of competition for all American industries, including education. Without it, no curricular subject will get the attention it needs, nor will our citizens and our economy be able to accept, exemplify, and benefit from competitiveness in the global market.