Feb 1, 2011

Is America Losing Its (Technology) Edge?


A recent Newsweek story, “ A Case of Senioritis”, includes excerpts from Bill Gates’ speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers. In the speech, Gates states, “If there’s one thing that can be done for the country, one thing…improving education rises so far above everything else!” The story also has some interesting figures: since 1995, the U.S. has fallen from 2nd in the world to 16th in college graduation rates, and it has fallen to 24th place in math (among 15-year-olds).

This got me thinking about what is causing the drop in graduation rates, and what does the decline in academic performance mean for the future of U.S. engineering talent? On a broader scale, I also wonder what this means for the long-term future of the U.S. technology sector, because we need a steady flow of new engineering talent to drive and maintain technology innovation.

Clearly, the cost of a four-year college degree has increased significantly over the last 25 years, and tuition rates continue to rise sharply each year. Beyond college tuition costs, even bigger issues may exist at the K-12 level, where Gates feels that U.S. methods for teacher compensation are outdated and inefficient. Today, pay and promotions for most teachers is based on seniority, rather than performance, peer reviews and other factors. Naturally, Gates is hearing opposition from teacher unions and academic leaders for his views on this topic.

Again, I wonder how these challenges – and the way we choose to address them – will impact us in regards to our math and engineering talent in the future. When I was working on my masters and PhD programs at Georgia Tech, a large percentage of my fellow students were not American. Are American colleges and universities simply training engineering talent from other countries that will then leave the U.S. upon graduation and return to their home nations to create technology companies of their own? Are we simply exporting top-level engineering skills and talent? How can we make math and science a priority again – starting with K-12 – to keep tech innovation strong in the U.S.?

I would like to hear what some of the engineering students and academics out there have to say … let me know what you think!

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