GRAND RAPIDS — Whether the country is entering either a recession or a hiccup in the current economic boom, the boom itself is owed not to Alan Greenspan but to 50 years of science and technological developments that have come to fruition in the past decade.
And if the educational framework for the next half-century is not laid now, the next boom will take place elsewhere. Moreover, life will be tough indeed for lots of youngsters enrolled in poor K-12 math and science curriculums.
That was the warning Congressman Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, issued recently in a Business Journal interview that paralleled a science education presentation he made last month at Grand Valley State University.
Ehlers said he was not slighting Greenspan, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, with respect to the current boom, but echoing Greenspan’s own view: science and technology generated the boom by multiplying American worker productivity enormously.
“The problem now,” Ehlers added, “is even though through the research of the past half century we have precipitated the boom, we are not producing students who are capable of maintaining it.
“We are short on scientists and engineers, first of all, and in the average graduate school of engineering in America today, you will find more than half the students are from other countries, because our students today simply can’t compete with students from other countries.”
And while some of those foreign students stay in the United States, he said most do not.
He rests his conclusion on the Third International Mathematics Sciences Study, an on-going test of students from the world’s developed countries.
He said the TIMSS, run by Michigan State University professors, shows American students consistently coming out at or near the bottom of the academic barrel in comparison to students from other countries.
He said the study has drawn a great deal of what he termed “defensive” criticism from public schools faculty and principals.
But he also said that even if one accepts all the criticism of the study, American students still turn in a mediocre performance at best. “What kind of finish is that,” he asked, “for the most powerful nation on earth?”
One of his major concerns for American youngsters in school now is their own personal futures.
He noted that if an office worker of 1970 had gone into a 30-year Rip Van Winkle sleep, he or she would be utterly unable to function in an office today. Typewriters would be gone and in their place would be faxes, word processors, e-mail, the Internet, cell phones and dozens of refinements of each.
The same thing is happening now, he said.
“I am convinced it will be very difficult to get a meaningful job in this country in the next 10 or 20 years,” he told the Business Journal, “if you don’t know some basic issues and ideas in science and mathematics.
“I think it’s very important that we improve our math and science education from pre-school to grad school,” he added, “but right now the biggest need is K-12 because that’s the weakest link.”
He said there’s little the federal government can do directly about education because the only schools it runs are in Washington, D.C., and in the armed forces.
“Interestingly, the armed forces schools are coming up very well,” he said, “and one of the interesting things happening in those schools is that there’s very little academic difference between minorities and whites and between those with lower or higher economic backgrounds.”
What really seems to make the difference, he said, is the involvement of parents in their children’s schooling. “And in the Army,” he quipped, “they can order you to work with your kids.”
He said, however, he sees four important reasons why the federal government should become involved in improving education, which has become a deeply worrisome national problem:
To make sure the country continues to have a good supply of scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technologists.
Because most jobs in the future will require a strong science and math background and most students will be unprepared for such work if their training isn’t improved now.
Considering how technical the world is becoming, today’s students need better training in order to be better-informed consumers and better and more informed voters. He said the analytical mental tools that come from scientific training serve all citizens whether they go into science or not.
Finally, he said, it’s well established that learning math and science at an early age substantially improves brain development because it stretches mental prowess in additional ways and also contributes to students’ ability to read and write.
Ehlers said some people tend to think that focus on math and science dulls appreciation for the arts, but he couldn’t disagree more.
Math, science and music all develop in the same part of the brain, he stressed. He recalls that when he was pursuing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, the faculty string quartet was made up of one professional musician … and three physics professors.
“And most people are astounded when I tell them about my experience in teaching physics at Calvin College: Of those physics majors who transferred into other fields, the majority of them became art and music majors.”