Friday, January 8, 2010

Obama's wise investment

From the 11 January 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

In recent weeks this column focused on the future of America’s economy and standard of living and how it hinges on our nation’s ability to develop technologies and alternative fuels to address constraints in the energy supply as predicated by growing global demand. Among the recurring themes in that series of columns was the need to improve our youngest citizens’ educations in science, math and engineering. It’s the very best way to guarantee our success in addressing any number of problems that will come our way: Intelligence (innate and acquired) breeds innovation.

Unfortunately, we need all the help we can get in that department. America is the world leader in almost everything from personal freedom to national wealth to the size of the military. Ours is far and away the preeminent society on Earth, both past and present. Yet despite our overall dominance – or maybe because of it – our citizenry are lacking in a rudimentary understanding of the critical subjects that let us know how the universe works or could work. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has analyzed the performance of 30 countries and of them the US is 19th in math and 14th in science. The Programme for International Student Assessment has us ranked 21st in science and 25th in math. No matter the source of the rankings it’s obvious that America is grossly underperforming and downright disappointing.

Out of the system that produces such middling results, fewer and fewer pupils are moving on to the mastery of numbers and the sciences and into fields of the public and private sectors that use those skills to better mankind through technological advances. As a matter of fact, a developing country, India, has overtaken us in that category. Call it complacency or call it indifference, we have collectively lost focus of those important facets of education. You can blame the bureaucracy that governs our education (for emphasizing other studies while forcing teaching-to-the-test) just as much as you can blame popular culture and parents (for making science and math un-cool and finding “average” to be so comforting and rewarding).

Our leaders have done - and continue to do - little to address this problem. Back in 2001 then President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy unveiled No Child Left Behind, something that has served only to magnify the weaknesses of the current education system. Last week, New York Governor David Paterson did something rather unprecedented in his state of the state address, failing to outline any goals for the advancement or betterment of public education.

It’s that disturbing trend - repeated time and time again in statehouses across the United States – that makes President Barack Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” program such a welcomed sight. Originally introduced in November, it was a $260 million initiative designed to produce 10,000 new science and math teachers by 2015 while investing in the professional development of 100,000 current teachers in the sciences and technologies.

Obama announced last week that those efforts are going to another level. Working with some of the biggest players in corporate America – Intel, Xerox, Kodak, and Time Warrner Cable – he has procured another $250 million in financial and in-kind support.

He also noted that not only have a half-billion dollars been dedicated to these efforts but so have federal resources. He has charged 200,000 federal scientists to speak at schools, create hands-on learning opportunities and deliver other forms of outreach to youngsters as a means to ignite their curiosity. In total, that’s an intellectual army of some 310,000 strong who will be deployed to improve our academic performance.

Educate to Innovate represents one of the wisest investments of the Obama Administration and the final impact of it will far rival any of the supposed positive effects of the stimulus package. Like any good investment, the return on it will be a long time coming. We won’t realize its benefits until at least two decades from now after it has trained the teachers who in turn create the better students who in turn become the minds who advance our society. That represents a change of pace from the way things are done. Far too many government programs focus only on the short-term, almost always to the detriment of future generations. This one, on the other hand, is focused on the productivity of your children and theirs. It’s the shot in the arm they need to take on the Chinas and the Indias of the world as they look to supplant America as the world’s super power.

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