Reading, writing and equations

We need to fundamentally redesign our head-patting secondary education system into an incubator.

Darren Bernard

Did you know U.S. companies spent more money on tort litigation than in research and development initiatives in 2001?

Did you know U.S. high school seniors recently performed below the international average on a comprehensive science and mathematics test?

Did you know India graduated 350,000 engineers and China graduated 600,000 engineers from higher-education programs last year? Did you know the United States graduated a mere 70,000?

If you didn’t, you missed perhaps the most important report on U.S. science and mathematics performances in decades. The 500-plus page commentary, released just last week, is the ambitious product of a nonpartisan panel of industry and education experts assembled by the National Academies.

And the document is not very comforting.

The central message of the report is that U.S. scientific pre-eminence is falling – down a mountainside. Our education system has failed to draw enough bright students into mathematics and hard sciences at precisely the time we should be swooning over Institute of Technology kids. Add our educational failures to the opening of cheap labor markets and the rise of India and China, and we have, as Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman puts it, “a quiet crisis.”

What to do to keep America on top of the world? Surprisingly, the committee doesn’t make any particularly radical recommendations. To ensure the United States stays technologically competitive internationally, the report says Congress should expand and make permanent corporate research and development tax credits. New student scholarships and academic grants would encourage students to pursue the sciences and give existing faculty the means to continue their research.

What’s more, any serious initiative to make America more competitive must be bipartisan. To Democrats’ chagrin, Congress needs to put a leash on insane, tort-happy lawyers who discourage innovation on U.S. soil. In a given year, litigation costs soak up around 2 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product. Almost no one would argue that American consumers are any safer from corporate recklessness than other industrialized nations, yet we have, by far, the most expensive tort system in the world.

To encourage foreign students and researchers to study and work in the United States, Republicans need to consider relaxing strict visa requirements. New visa restrictions fueled by the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 cut admissions of foreign students to the United States dramatically.

For instance, from the 2003 to the 2004 school years, admissions of Chinese students – perhaps threats to national security in the 1950s and 1960s – fell by a third. A survey conducted in China recently showed that some 91 percent of Chinese researchers were “seriously rethinking their collaborations with U.S. scientists and intend to work with scientists in countries where obtaining a visa is not a problem.”

But the simplest stuff, like getting more U.S. kids into math at earlier ages, is the backbone of the panel’s strategy to keep America competitive. “We need to get back to basic blocking and tackling.” That’s how Charles Vest, the former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, summarized the panel’s recommendations. Ultimately, we need to fundamentally redesign our head-patting secondary education system into an incubator for tomorrow’s best.

It may sound like an obvious point, but with grade inflation out of control, unqualified teachers directing our classrooms and undisciplined inner-city students turning high school education into baby-sitting, Americans need to stop trusting that lawmakers and school boards make the best decisions for their kids. In today’s education system, there’s too much political correctness and too few challenges. There are too many entitlements and not enough work. There’s too much basketweaving and too little calculus.

Take just one example. This academic year, students at two schools in the San Bernardino school district in California will have the delightful opportunity to learn their material in, get ready, ebonics. That’s right – as part of the school district’s pathetic “Students Accumulating New Knowledge Optimizing Future Accomplishment” initiative, students will be provided with supplemental reading materials written in trashy slang.

The stated goal of the project is to keep kids interested in subject matter while improving black students’ academic performance. The obvious result will be more poorly educated kids unprepared for the real world.

In the meantime, Chinese and Indian academic institutions will be pumping out more and more brilliant, exceptionally motivated young scholars looking for a slice of our pie. And if we don’t change our ways, they’re going to get it. As the National Academies’ report warns, “Without a major push to strengthen the foundations of America’s competitiveness, the United States could soon lose its privileged position.”

Is that a warning we should all take to heart? Fo shizzle.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]