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Who Says the U.S. Educational System is not up to Par?

The General Electric Company’s philanthropic arm GE Foundation, last week, committed $22 million to the Atlanta Public Schools. “District’s largest …

The General Electric Company’s philanthropic arm GE Foundation, last week, committed $22 million to the Atlanta Public Schools. “District’s largest private grant ever will revamp math and science learning in grades k-12,” said a news release on the company’s web site.

 

The report also quoted Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Beverly L. Hall saying that the grant will help deliver the vision of a math and science curriculum that exemplifies best educational practices, especially, recognizing demands for the workforce of the future.

 

A month ago, same time, market research firm Harris Interactive, and Adecco, the leader in workforce solutions released a survey that explored American workers’ views on education and the U.S. educational system. It said 64 percent of respondents, among 3,434 U.S. adults surveyed, agree that the U.S. educational system is not providing workers with the necessary skills to be prepared for the jobs of the future. And 9 in 10 employed adults or 92 percent believe that policymakers should assign top priority to strengthen the system in the next decade.

 

It doesn’t end there. Fifty six percent of the respondents believe the country is not prepared to compete in a global economy. More women (61 percent) support such a thought than men (52 percent). Four in five employed adults or 83 percent agree that the responsibility to bridge the education gap should be placed on U.S. companies; with nearly three-quarters (76 percent) agreeing that today’s U.S. employers do not invest enough in training and development to keep the U.S. workforce competitive with other countries.

 

Not investing enough? According to the American Society for Training and Development, U.S. organizations spend nearly $109.25 billion on employee learning and development annually, with nearly three quarters ($79.75 billion) spent on the internal learning function, and the remainder ($29.50 billion) spent on external services.

 

There is also a school of thought among business leaders in Corporate America that dismisses the outcome of such surveys or responses. Frank Piantidosi, CEO of Deloitte Financial Advisory Services says: “Frankly, I don’t see that. The people we hire year to year get smarter and smarter and they are products of the education system of the United States. We are able to hire very smart, very knowledgeable individuals, those right out of college to very experienced senior people in our business. And that’s across all our businesses.”

 

Adecco admits Piantidosi’s assessment is spot on, but insists there are flaws in the system screaming for attention. “The American workforce is still one of the most highly educated, highly motivated and productive workforces in the world. The challenge our clients face is finding the right people at the right time for the right position and retaining them. Having said that there are issues with our education system that can and should be fixed,” it says.

 

Some observers say that it is the combination of parents, teachers and students that collectively can and should make a difference in bringing about a turnaround in education. “STEM or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are no longer of interest to American students to the same degree pre 2000,” says John Nordlinger, a program manager with Microsoft Research. An admirer of Randy Pausch, the 47 years old computer science professor from Carnegie Mellon University, who is stricken with cancer and who wowed the world with his not-to-be-missed “Last Lectureearlier in October. Nordlinger has experienced the decline in STEM learning first-hand. After managing the universities in India for Microsoft Research, Nordlinger shifted focus to tackle the problem of declining computer science (CS) enrollment, especially in the US, reinvigorating CS curriculum with gaming technologies and concepts, as well as with robots. Nordlinger’s attempt now includes games for learning. He hopes to collaborate with others on developing a game to help young kids with algebra and geometry and older kids with the GRE.

 

Nordlinger and Microsoft’s realization is borne out by the Computing Research Association, a group of more than 200 North American academic departments of computer science, computer engineering and related fields. In a bulletin titled “Low Interest in CS and CE Among Incoming Freshmen, it wrote: “After peaking in 1999 and 2000, interest in CS as a major fell 70 percent between 2000 and 2005. In the fall of 2006, 1.1 percent of incoming freshmen indicated CS as their probable major, the same as in 2005.”

 

Adecco’s Jamie Parker who leads the company’s workforce solutions in Engineering and Technical in North America revealed that there is a shortage of people going into the occupations that require science, technology, engineering and math skills.

 

The Washington-based Council on Competitiveness, the only group of corporate CEOs, university presidents and labor leaders committed to ensuring the future prosperity of all Americans through enhanced competitiveness in the global economy and the creation of high-value economic activity in the country also published shocking data on its web site under “Benchmarking Competitiveness.  Its findings in the Science and Talent pool says: Jobs requiring technical skills are projected to grow by 51 percent, with six million job openings projected for technically-trained talent.

However, it says that outside of life sciences, undergraduate degrees in science and engineering are flat and declining, with a similar trend seen for graduate enrollments in key disciplines. A large share of PhDs in science and engineering, it says, are earned by foreign students. Also, the proportion of science and engineering degrees grew abroad at the same time declining in the U.S. It revealed that the pool of scientists and engineers is also increasing rapidly in other countries. And lastly, it says that women and minorities are underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce.

All doesn’t seem to be lost. A visible change in approach on the part of authorities is beginning to show, albeit at a slow pace. The U.S. Department of Education, last month, awarded $2.45 million to The Association of American Colleges and Universities in conjunction with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. “This pilot program will bring important information to parents and students to help in their college decision making process, as they deserve,” said Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education. “Clear measures of student achievement at the post-secondary level will also assist policy-makers and institutions better diagnose problems and target resources to address gaps,” she concluded.

Piantidosi says the U.S. may have to deal with shortage of qualified people rather than having to fret over quality. “The challenge is: are we producing enough? The numbers we project out, what the needs are going to be, going out 20-30 years, I think it gets tighter and more constricted. I don’t think it is a quality issue, it becomes a quantity issue,” he says.

 

Adecco’s own analysis is a confirmation of Piantidosi’s view. “The talent shortage of up to 10 million workers by 2010 [as projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics] will give us a tug of war for workers who will be much more competitive than we experience during the tech boom. Turnover will increase, compensation will have to increase and unique benefits will come into play again. That will be the result of the quantity issue,” Adecco says.

 

So how does the U.S. solve the problem? A study group of the National Center on Education and The Economy – the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, in December 2006, unveiled “Tough Choices or Tough Times” a report that seeks to bring about the biggest changes in the American educational system in a century, changes that it says are critically important. The Commission has said that without these changes, the American standard of living will be in serious jeopardy.

 

Away from all these developments, there are Americans like Donald P Nielsen, chairman of Tech First Inc. and a Harvard Business School alumnus, who profess the dictum “A great education starts with great teachers.”  As chairman, president and chief executive of Hazleton Laboratories Corp (Bought by Covance Inc. in 1987), Nielsen was so troubled by the poor skills he saw in his company’s entry-level hires that after he retired in 1992, at age 54, he set about finding a solution to what he described as “If you want to change public education, you have to get inside the system.”

He set off on a two-year journey traveling the United States trying to figure out what was wrong with its public education system. A former president of the Seattle School Board, Nielsen’s disappointment with the educational system continues to this day as evident from his exclusive column “Fix Public Education” on October 28 in The Seattle Times.

 

On a global level, the U.S. higher education system continues to be the benchmark for global standard of academic achievement. For over five decades, American universities have been attracting millions of students across the globe as its institutions maintained their dominance worldwide. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the United States remains the most popular destination for international students with 22 percent of foreign students enrollment. The OECD has also published Education at a Glance 2007.

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