Invest in education

Cutting education will leave us behind India and China.

With the elections behind us and the GOP firmly in control of all branches of government, there has been a lot of talk about the so-called Republican mandate. Conservative analysts have used this phrase to trumpet their pet causes–hawkish defense strategies, permanent tax cuts, and government belt tightening, to name three. Lost in the campaigns and the press is any call for other things that might matter to Americans–the economy, the environment, and education, to name three.

It would be a grave injustice to Americans if the Republican mandate were drawn so narrowly that it ignores the three Es, especially education. Simply put, without devoting considerable resources to educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, and other tech workers, many more high-tech jobs will either be shipped overseas or given over to foreign contractors here. Bill Gates’ trip to India underscores the simple fact that high-tech companies are looking to grow their investments in Asian tech talent at the expense of American talent.

It’s not just because Asia is loaded with cheap labor. Many Asian countries have stronger secondary education programs in science and math than we do here. If we don’t keep up with Asia, it will become ever more difficult for all American tech workers. No longer is Asia just seen as a place to outsource manufacturing. It is increasingly a place of design, programming, and project management. The sheer population of smart, (literally) hungry tech wanna-bes in these countries puts enormous pressure on American techies, who are disadvantaged by inferior high-school math and science curricula and expectations.

Kurt Guthmueller, ComputerUser’s part-time art director, feels this crunch every day. Back when we published reams of pages per month, Kurt was our full-time art director. Every month, he and I would sit down for the better part of a week and talk about the dozens of features and departments in need of art for the month in production. Over the course of a year, Kurt found he was much more interested in the technologies we talked about than the designs he created to complement these features. So he decided to go back to school and get a second bachelor’s degree, this time in electrical engineering and computer science (his first degree was in architecture). After our publication shrunk with the tech economy, we retained Kurt for after-hours art direction. The stories he tells me about his experience in EE/CSCI school give me a glimpse of how far behind our secondary education system is.

Kurt spent the first two years working on core classes for engineering students–physics, calculus, and the like. While he didn’t ace those classes, he was in the top tier in all of them. Once he started taking engineering classes, however, core courses seemed like child’s play. When he doesn’t need to design a cover or lay out features for me, he gets to the university very early in the morning and he comes home very early the next morning. His entire day is devoted to programming and circuit design courses, labs, and homework. While he is holding his own, many of his colleagues are struggling mightily to keep up with the grueling workload. Many of them are trying to learn the more advanced facets of their courses while needing to fill in basics as they go. Many of them are simply failing.

While the courses appropriately prepare new electrical engineers to face IT challenges given what companies need from recent graduates, students find the gap between prerequisites and engineering classes too wide to bridge. Working backward, core courses for engineering and the sciences are easier than they should be because incoming freshman have high failure rates and there is enormous pressure on teachers to retain students. Students are hard to retain because their high schools do not adequately prepare them to enter college. None of this is news to you, nor is the slew of factors contributing to poor high school math and science preparation (low standards, social aversions to being geeks, undertrained teachers, etc.).

Given the ever-improving global competition for technology skills, we simply can’t afford to maintain the status quo in secondary math, science, and computing education. Yet state budgets for education are being slashed to the bone amid huge budget deficits. In my home state, the education budget was gutted by our lame-duck governor, Jesse Ventura. Consequently, nearly every district had a referendum to increase local property taxes to pay for the basics in the absence of state funding. Many of these referenda failed because they would have raised property taxes by as much as one third. Ventura’s line was, “If you don’t like it, go to private school.” While I will send my child to private school in addition to lots of after-school Web work, that’s not the point. What about the hundreds of thousands of students who can’t afford private school? What impact will reducing the pool of tech-savvy individuals to the children of means do to America’s future technology position in the rest of the world?

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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