Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sputnik Was Nothing

How much longer will the United States be a superpower? Not much, if we do not wake up to the fact that our economic strength, which has underpinned our political and military might for two centuries, is decaying. In the 21st century, economic power will be derived from skills and innovation. Nations that don't invest in skills will weaken: it is that straightforward. And today the evidence of U.S. decline is even more urgent than the shocks that sent us scrambling after Sputnik in the late 1950s or during Japan's surge in the late 1980s.

America is no longer winning the skills race. South Korea, with one sixth of the U.S. population, graduates as many engineers as the United States. China graduates four times as many; India, five times as many. Just as more than half of America's current science and engineering work force is approaching retirement, the flow of foreign talent is starting to dry up. For the first time in my memory, we're at the wrong end of a brain drain, as foreign-born grads in science, technology and engineering either return home after getting U.S. degrees or stay home in the first place.

And we are not replenishing those losses from within. In international mathematics exams, 15-year-old American students performed well below the mean of participating countries. This is little surprise, since teaching out of one's field of expertise is common in the United States, especially in math and science. Nearly 70 percent of American middle-school students are assigned to teachers who have had neither a major nor certification in mathematics.

The United States needs a new strategy. We must start by improving teaching in public schools, where more than 85 percent of our schoolchildren are educated. If teaching remains a second-rate profession, America's economy will be driven by second-rate skills. The Teaching Commission, the bipartisan organization I founded, has articulated an agenda to re-create the teaching profession. Local boards and superintendents must pay teachers much more and reward performance with sensible market incentives, so we can attract the best and brightest.

Schools of education have for years been sleeping cash cows, which college presidents have refused to disturb. Teacher-training standards are too low. Curricula are focused too much on pedagogical theory and too little on subject content and pragmatic technique. The result: teacher-education programs are contributing to the problem of inadequate teacher quality. Governors must pressure college presidents to raise standards, redesign programs of study and launch universitywide efforts to get top graduates, especially those with math and science majors, to enter teaching.

We must clear away stifling bureaucracy. States need to streamline certification and licensing while raising professional standards. Localities need to free principals from onerous teacher work rules, so they can assemble teams and lead. Businesses must also play their part. A good model is the Transition to Teaching program announced recently by my former company, IBM, which will enable some of its most experienced employees to become fully accredited teachers.

A new national strategy doesn't stop at the schoolhouse door. There is also a powerful emerging consensus for action, perhaps best articulated in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences. In order to preserve America's "strategic and economic security," the Academy says, the nation needs, among other things, to recruit 10,000 science and math teachers annually through merit-based scholarships, ramp up federal investment in basic research by 10 percent a year over the next seven years and offer new competitive grants for the study of math, science and engineering.

We should heed those calls and consider other bold strokes, including reinventing our federal departments of Labor and Education as an integrated, innovative Department of Skills—with a name and a mission that actually reflect the work that needs to be done. This is no time for complacency. Developing economies are surging and developed economies are slipping. Only a serious, swift and sweeping effort to close this gap will keep us healthy competitors.

Gerstner, Louis V. Jr. - Sputnik Was Nothing, in «Issues 2006», Nova Iorque: Newsweek, 2005, p 98.

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