Education Spurs Innovation – but US Fails to Lead

This OpEd piece by Wendy Hawkins appeared [yesterday in Politico. Since then, the Pisa results were released and discussed in a Digital Town Hall hosted by Intel and featuring US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Secretary General Angel Gurria, NY Times Columnist Tom Friedman, ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation) President Rob Atkinson, PBS News Hour hosts Gwen Ifill and Hari Sreenavasan, Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, and Intel Foundation Executive Director Wendy Hawkins.]


“Education spurs innovation”

December 7, 2010

By Wendy Hawkins, Executive Director, Intel Foundation

The new “basic” level of understanding required of all students today is significantly higher than in the past. They must understand math and science at levels that allow them to participate fully in the 21st century.

This means knowing how to use technology – an ever-more ubiquitous tool in every kind of work environment – effectively. Students must be scientifically and mathematically literate to understand the news of the day and how to budget for their families. They need to be able to manage their own health care effectively. They need to be able to understand crucial topics, like global warming and alternative energy.

Yet, it’s a bitter truth: The United States, which once produced the world’s best students in math, science and engineering, is falling behind.

The best practices that fueled America’s innovation economy — and made us the leader worldwide — have now been adopted by other countries. Chief among these is investing in education.

After all, for any country to grasp the potential breakthroughs just over the horizon – cleaner more sustainable energy solutions, advances in nanotechnology, significant medical developments – it must have a reliable pipeline of highly educated, highly skilled individuals. Unfortunately for the United States, other nations are outpacing us.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan today is set to reveal how American students compare to the rest of the world, unveiling the 2009 test scores from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) at “Education for Innovation,” a digital town-hall discussion about the key role education plays in developing entrepreneurs, sponsored by Intel.

PISA, an international evaluation of 15 year olds, is the most comprehensive international study of student performance. It measures reading, mathematics and science levels in 64 countries and economies.

If past PISA scores are any indication, U.S. students are likely to have continued their struggles in comparison to other countries. Fortunately, we can do something about this. As a nation, we can launch an unprecedented effort to invest in science and mathematics education that ensures that all students get a basic level of understanding in science and math. This will equip our next generation with the tools necessary to fuel the modern economy.

It also keeps the door open for students to decide if they have the passion to pursue careers in technology, science and entrepreneurship — even if they don’t realize this until they’re in high school, or even college. The most talented math and science students should have every opportunity to push the boundaries of learning — to do authentic research and learn science in a hands-on, engaging environment that challenges and inspires them.

But these opportunities require resources at a time when they are limited. In this climate, some critics suggest that we should focus only on the few, investing in those who show greater aptitude in mathematics and science. That would be a serious mistake.

Education, as we know at Intel, is the critical driving force behind American innovation. Innovation helps us create high-quality jobs and a standard of living that remains the envy of the world. Curiosity, critical thinking and a strong foundation in math and science are necessary for tomorrow’s workforce to compete for the high-tech jobs of the future.

In the international marketplace, the United States has lost ground. Experts agree that one reason for this decline has been our failure to produce enough students with sufficient skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Statistics are staggering: Only 43 percent of 2010 U.S. high school graduates are ready for college-level math. Only 29 percent are ready for college-level science.

Yet, the traditional math and science related-fields are important — representing 5 percent of the total U.S. workforce, or about 8 million jobs by 2018. It is the second fastest-growing occupational group, second only to health care – which certainly requires high levels of math and science – and contributes to roughly half of all U.S. growth.

All this means that the future is going to be more competitive, not less. We need to give our best and brightest opportunities to grow as far and as fast as they can. But we must also ensure that all today’s students are equipped to thrive in the ever-more challenging world they inherit.

For the sake of our next generation, it’s an investment Congress – and the American people –must make.



In the Pisa results released yesterday (December 7, 2010), Shanghai, the newest participant in the Programme for International Student Assessment, offered stunning results, topping all other cities and countries represented in the program, besting even South Korea, Singapore and Finland, the former world leaders.

The US ticked up slightly in science, held steady in reading, and dropped in math scores – all three areas remaining discouragingly low in comparison to other countries. As analysis of the data reveals, the US spends more than almost every other country on a per student basis, yet achieves results that are at best ‘average.’

We have the greatest disparity in results between our poorest and wealthiest students, between our best- and our worst-performing students. Both our students and we as a nation have inflated beliefs about how well our students and our schools are doing. We have got to get over our notions of “American exceptionalism” – a belief that we and our children are somehow inherently better, stronger, more creative, more entrepreneurial, or just plain smarter than the rest of the world – and come to grips with the fact that many other countries around the world have figured out how to overcome the very same barriers we use as excuses for our results.

They have figured out how to educate poor students and immigrants, how to inspire girls and minorities to do well in math and science, how make teaching an honored and respected profession that attracts their best and brightest, how to work with – instead of against – their teacher unions, how to design curricula that lead students to understand science in depth rather than skimming lightly across the subject matter, and how to invest their education dollars for greatest impact.

There is much for us to learn from what these data reveal, and what other countries around the world are accomplishing. We must look at these results with humility, and learn these lessons quickly, or condemn our children to a discouraging future they do not deserve.

2 Responses to Education Spurs Innovation – but US Fails to Lead

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