Economy and Education & Workforce Development and Technology

ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: Our technology woes begin in grade school

November 13, 2006

Those of us who work for universities soon become acquainted with the concept of tenure, which is a status typically conferred upon those of faculty rank who have demonstrated to their colleagues the ability to teach and conduct research to a high standard. Those who achieve tenured status are more free to speak their minds about controversial issues, since it is much more difficult for their superiors to terminate or dismiss them without just cause.

The words penned in this column should perhaps be left for someone with better employment security to write, for the university I work for bestows no such status in the position I hold. Yet I find myself compelled to write them, nonetheless-if for no better reason than to draw attention to a problem that is too important to be left unaddressed for fear of ruffling a few feathers.

The issue is the preparation of the work force for the economy of tomorrow and, particularly, for the scientific and technical occupations that our more complex, technologically sophisticated economy will demand. The divergence in the projected trends in supply and demand of such workers is stark.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the coming decade, 15 will require substantial mathematical and scientific preparation. Engineering and scientific occupations are projected to grow almost four times faster than the average. The rewards in those occupations in terms of salaries, benefits and career advancement are substantially in excess of what average jobs provide. Yet American children are increasingly choosing other careers.

In fact, by middle school, many of our children are underachieving in math and science to the point where those careers are no longer accessible. Eighth-grade test scores reveal American children to be below average in science and math aptitude to a shocking degree-nearly 20-percent worse than many Asian countries, and even behind those of much poorer countries in Eastern Europe.

Higher education institutions have begun to notice. The technological dominance many of us take as a birthright has begun to erode at an astonishing rate. As reported by Purdue University President Martin Jischke, in recent years, the number of U.S. college engineering graduates has declined 20 percent, to just under 60,000. At that same time, the number of engineering graduates in China increased 161 percent, to 207,000, while Japan, Korea and India also saw large gains. In fact, it is projected that, by 2010, 90 percent of the world's engineers will reside in Asia.

How is America responding to that challenge? By staffing our schools during what might be the most impressionable period in our children's lives with teachers whose interest and aptitude in science is minimal.

To our schools' credit, the preparation and accreditation of middle school science and mathematics teachers in Indiana, as in many other states, has shown considerable improvement. The four out of five middle school teachers certified to teach math/science here exceeds the national average, if there is any comfort in that.

The problem is in the earlier years. Research suggests that attitudes toward scientific and technical subjects can form before middle school age. Yet those who teach children in those years are not only unqualified to feed a budding curiosity, but may even be disinclined to do so. That's because, as a group, those who pursue elementary education as a career today tend to be the academically least-gifted, poorest-performing students on campus.

Given the meager rewards we bestow on those teaching in our elementary schools, perhaps that's not altogether surprising. Yet hoping that those teachers will instill a positive, welcoming attitude in our children toward subjects in which they themselves did not excel has been foolish. And we can't ignore the problem much longer.



Barkey is an economist and director of economic and policy study at the College of Business, Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at pbarkey@ibj.com.
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