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« Vision Time: Spring Branch Goes 20/20: Part 3 | Main | NASA's Observatorium: More Great Free Science Education Tools »

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

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John W. Baker

I don't know if free market forces are the reason, but it's well-recognized that American colleges and universities have foreign applicants lined up fairly deep. Our universities are at the top of the world's short list, and students from every country are clamoring to get into them.

If you are a parent who has experienced the joy of your son or daughter's high school graduation, you remember that during their senior year your child received a stack of unsolicited college brochures several feet tall. Our colleges and universities are competing for our high school graduates to fill their classes.

These facts should give us pause when we look to the educational systems of Japan and Germany as models for reforming American public secondary schools, particularly considering that those countries have much smaller percentages of college-bound students:

1) If our secondary schools are so bad, why are our colleges competing so fiercely to attract graduates?

2) If their secondary schools are so good, why are they competing so fiercely to get into our colleges?

Keith Little

As an economist I am dismayed by Norman Augustine's apparent premise that the U.S. is experiencing a large-scale "market failure" with respect to the provision of scientific and engineering talent in the future. What is the evidence of this? U.S. productivity growth is trotting right along, and future economic growth prospects would be outstanding except for the federal budget deficit.

So what if engineering and sciences talent is sourced from non-U.S. citizens? Is that some kind of underappreciated risk? Perhaps his prior role as leader of one of the U.S. military industrial complex's largest entities and largest Department of Defense beneficiaries has colored his thinking in this area. Sounds like outdated Cold-War-speak to me.

Mr. Augustine's solution on all fronts seems to be to get the government more involved doling out money, offering tax incentives and shaping outcomes. Sadly, this is an approach that has repermeated the federal government in recent years and will be found appealing by many on both sides of the aisle.

The teaching of the sciences and engineering clearly needs significant improvement in many primary and secondary school systems. (At the college and university level, the free market forces are sufficiently robust to offer sound teaching.) However, rather than recommend improved recruiting and training, let's start by paying our teachers salaries that incentivize them to pursue the profession.

Most importantly, as parents and adults, we ought to be asking ourselves why our young people are not choosing to study the sciences and engineering in greater numbers. Perhaps theirs is a legitimate personal response. Perhaps they are not attracted to the nature of the work. Perhaps the sciences and engineering aren't consistent with their natural skillsets. Who are we to "force" them into those professions through government intervention? If you as a parent or adult think that the sciences or engineering would be consistent with the apptitude and disposition of a child or young person over whom you have influence, then you have an opportunity to nurture that possibility by being informed and persuasive. Government coaxing, even on a massive scale, is unlikely to have a signficant influence on the decisionmaking of adolescents and young adults.

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