Today more than ever, knowledge and innovation are driving successful economies. The key to both is a world-class education. But far too many students-both in America and worldwide-do not have access to the kind of education necessary to compete in the twenty-first century’s global economy. Such is the underlying message of a series of essays recently commissioned by Forbes magazine as part of “Solutions: Educating Our Children.”
The twenty essays come from some of the world’s top specialists in business, including Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corporation, andJohn Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems; government, such as Representative George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings; and academia, such as Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Over half of the essays come from business leaders, particularly those in the technology sector.
In his essay, Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, explains why business leaders should be interested in education reform in general and in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in particular.
“Among the greatest champions for a strong NCLB renewal has been the business community,” McKeon writes in his essay. “Like them, I believe that America’s future success will be measured on a global stage. The innovation and achievement in our boardrooms gives this country a competitive advantage in the global arena, and that same innovation and achievement needs to be fostered in our classrooms. Yet despite this clear-cut need, education reformers and business leaders recognize that today’s students are too often not being equipped with the fundamentals that will ensure a lifetime of learning, creativity and success.”
Indeed, the individuals who represented technology companies, such as Cisco Systems, Intel, and Microsoft, among others, also focus their essays on the need to better prepare the next generation of leaders and workers. Some writers are especially worried about how effectively these future leaders will replace highly qualified technology workers from the baby boom generation who will retire in a few years-especially considering American teenagers’ shortfalls in science in math when compared to their international peers.
Business Leaders Focus on American Students’ Poor Scores in Math and Science
Chambers notes in his essay, “For many years, our national commitment to education-particularly in the areas of math and science-has lagged behind what is needed to maintain and expand our global leadership in innovation.”
Sharing Chambers’s misgivings about American students’ deficiencies in math and science, Taylor W. Lawrence, vice president of engineering, technology, and mission assurance for Raytheon Company, bases much of his essay on his experience with Raytheon’s MathMovesU program, which shows middle school students how math can intersect with their interests, passions, and lead to “cool” careers. “We need to nurture and support students’ math abilities during these critical grades, before negative peer pressure takes hold,” he advises. “We need to provide them with suitable role models and show them the practical application of math in their lives.”
As Lawrence points out, American elementary school students match up well against their international peers in math. However, by the time they reach middle school, less than one third score at the proficient level in math. He blames part of the decline on the stigma associated with math and science and says that even the success of an “ubergeek” like Bill Gates has not reversed this trend.
Chambers argues that without more students choosing math and science careers the nation could lose the edge in innovation that it has enjoyed for decades. “We know we are facing a transition, and we must take this opportunity to provide today’s students with the tools and the thinking that is required for the future,” he writes. “If we miss this transition, we risk losing the innovation that has powered the past decade of economic and technological growth, and we leave an entire generation unprepared to meet and overcome the challenges they will face.”
Government Leaders Focus on Solving the Dropout Crisis
Nationwide, only about 70 percent of American high school students graduate on time with a regular diploma. Among minority students, the percentage is much closer to 50 percent. Such low graduation rates translate into approximately seven thousand students who drop out of high school every school day and over 1.2 million students every year who drop out before earning a high school diploma.
In his essay, U.S. Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY), the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, calls the dropout crisis “one of the most pressing problems in our education system today.” He also asserts that too many students who do graduate discover that they have to spend their first years of college taking “frustrating, remedial coursework on subjects they should have learned in high school.” Acknowledging that a high school diploma alone is usually not enough to prepare students for the high-skill, high-paying jobs of the twenty-first century, Enzi calls on Congress to help reduce rising college costs and to ensure that every student has access to lifelong learning opportunities.
Secretary Spellings focuses her essay on students who are most likely to drop out-those from poor and minority households. “We’re only getting half of our minority kids out of high school on time, while 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require post-secondary education,” she writes. “Let that sink in for a moment. It is untenable, unsustainable and no good.” Spellings adds that the increases in minority student enrollment have changed the face of America and have brought the nation to a “critical” moment. “It’s uncomfortable. It ought to be uncomfortable. Half of our minority kids get out of school on time. If we don’t have discomfort or anxiety about that, shame on us.”
But why do so many poor and minority students drop out? As Michelle Rhee writes, it is not because they suffer from an insufficient capacity to learn. Instead, she blames any disparities between their performance and that of their more affluent peers not on the students, but instead on the adults in the education system. “I know first-hand from speaking and working with our children that our poor and minority students have potential and ability that rivals anyone,” she writes. “You can tell when you meet them, when you talk to them, when you hear their stories. Our students aren’t achieving, not because of their aptitude, but because we, as the adults in this system, are not doing our jobs to serve them well.” As part of her plan for change in the DC schools, she proposes a smaller bureaucracy, increased incentives for teachers-including pay-for-performance-and increased support for struggling schools.
In discussing the importance of the most important adults in the education system-teachers-Craig R. Barrett, chairman of Intel, also weaves in the themes of competitiveness and math and science education that he shares with his colleagues in the technology industry.
“When I look at education in the U.S., I see a declining K-12 system that is losing competitiveness,” he writes. “One of the most serious issues is the shortage of well-qualified teachers, which is forcing many school districts to hire uncertified or underqualified people. This is especially crippling in math and science-two fields critical to future economic development.”
In his essay, Bill Gates asserts that too few children worldwide have access to a quality education. He explains how technology is bringing brilliant teachers, innovative lesson plans, and other high-quality education resources to people around the globe. As an example, he cites the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) OpenCourseWare initiative, which makes lecture notes, exams, and other resources available online for more than 1,800 MIT classes and online communities that allow teachers to share ideas, lesson plans, and content over the Internet.
Gates also acknowledges that technology is only one part of the solution. “There are significant social, cultural, and institutional challenges that must be overcome as well,” he writes. “Technology must be implemented as part of a thoughtful, holistic approach to education transformation that includes teacher training, relevant curricula, parental involvement, and programs for children that fill unmet needs for basics like nutrition and health care.”
With so many influential leaders from business, education, and the government in agreement that education is the key to the nation’s economic future, what else could be needed to implement the changes needed to move the country toward effective educational reform? Miller provides an answer in the last sentence of his essay: “These are significant challenges, but with the political will, we can address them.”
Rhee agrees. She writes, “When political will backs the innovative practices and courage needed for reform, it absolutely is possible to turn around a school system.”
The complete collection of essays is available at