Education – A Talent Solution


This is the first in a series of papers regarding the American education system where we will explore ideas for holistic reform to prepare students for the new economic reality, and ensure continued U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace. In this paper we set up how we think about talent, review the political history of education reform, highlight some current reform efforts, and then outline other more innovative approaches to reform that have proven successful in some cities and states within the United States, and across the international community.

Michael Harvey contributed to the paper. 

Effective solutions to low educational attainment, specifically in STEM subjects, remain hard to find. Since the United States education system has so far failed to produce enough high-tech talent -- in the right places -- many U.S. firms are sourcing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) talent from around the globe. But immigration reform is only a short-term solution to the talent shortage. To truly solve the problem, we must consider large-scale education reform. Holistic reform of education is a sustainable mechanism for economic growth, and the most direct solution for building a society of skilled individuals prepared to participate in the economy -- and specifically to replenish the high-tech labor market.

Immigration and Education

The Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill pays lip service to education reform as a long-term solution to ensuring American competitiveness, but despite the general attention lavished on the bill, there has been little meaningful discussion of its education provisions.

Section 4104 includes a proposal for forty percent of the proceeds from H-1B applications -- collected in the H-1B Nonimmigrant Petitioner Account -- to be made available to the Director at the National Science Foundation -- an independent federal agency charged with promoting non-medical science and engineering through research programs and education projects. Thirty percent is for the Low-Income STEM Scholarship Program and loan forgiveness, and the other ten percent goes to a “direct or matching grant program to support improvement in K-12 education, including through private-public partnerships”.

The bill also outlines a new STEM Education & Training Account -- a separate account carved out of Treasury funds to “enhance...economic competitiveness” through increased exposure to STEM at all education levels. The Secretary of Education manages the fund on a 70:20:5:3:2 split with seventy percent going to states, twenty percent “establishing or expanding” grants for STEM programs, five percent for “statewide workforce investment activities...and the development of licensing and credentialing programs”, three percent for “American Dream Accounts”, and two percent for administrative and evaluative measures to manage the account. This is great news for partially and underfunded programs, especially in communities where such support has been lacking.

As the high-tech industry continues to demand STEM skills, increasing American competitiveness is a must. Developing an “education-pipeline” for domestic talent requires that we amplify access to rigorous training in these subjects and improve performance from the start. With immigration reform, we’re only solving part of the issue -- how to get talent now. Working out how to grow a sustainable talent pipeline means understanding how low educational attainment became such a problem.

Political History of Education Reform

To properly address this complex issue we need to address its history. The last twenty years of education reform is the result of a swing in domestic policy from economic to social issues. After passing education reform as Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton’s early presidential agenda also prioritized education, and focused on boosting achievement by incentivizing accountability.

Subsequent administrations have augmented this motif, implementing more flexibility and choice with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under President Bush, and then key reforms to the assessment system and accountability structure under the Obama Administration. In this context, the “Race to the Top”, a national competition rewarding academic performance, was a natural development. These policies that attempt to decouple disadvantage from educational outcomes are beholden to a common legacy that stretches back to the landmark Elementary & Secondary Education Act of 1965.

The Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) -- routinely amended and reauthorized from 1965 until it was allowed to lapse in 2007 -- represents the official recognition of the special link between poverty and educational outcomes. Both Houses of Congress are trying to renew this bill that finances educational infrastructure, programming, training, and resources to promote educational equity. The progression of this bill records the proliferation of ideas on the educational War on Poverty, and remains the touchstone of education reform in America.

ESEA was originally passed at the tail end of a burst of hyper innovation resulting from recent wars, the space race, and a special focus on STEM skills. But, as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty, the 'STEM agenda' was pushed aside in favor of improving education for the poor. Despite a long history of STEM initiatives, this shift has had a major impact on our global rank for STEM achievement. President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have acknowledged that a robust and targeted approach to STEM has been long absent, and they are now working on new initiatives.

The contributions to STEM education by The National Science Foundation have tempered this decline, but the agency came together during the 1950’s, and nothing as important has happened for STEM education since it was created. Discrete efforts to improve STEM attainment started with the Bush Administration’s America Competes Act and the Obama Administration’s Math and Science Partnership. Education reformers are once-again trying to balance priorities.

Current Reform Legislation

The Student Success Act that passed the House would reauthorize ESEA with key revisions so states, districts, and even individual students have more agency in funding decisions. The act would streamline existing legislation on teacher quality programs into one grant program, and encourage educational innovation like charter and magnet school programs to give parents and students a robust set of educational options. Since public education was originally governed by states, SSA would return powers lost through cooperative federalism. This bill is waiting for Senate approval and has a 20% chance of becoming law.

Frederick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, commented: “The House Republicans’ bill...isn’t a federal retreat, it’s a smart, disciplined vision of a principled federal role.” But, while this bill does well to recognize the impracticality of a one-size-fits-all solution, in decreasing federal control it also passes up the chance to influence student success. It fails to change “comparability standards” for teachers that would establish professional parity between schools across the spectrum, it does not provide a definition for “student growth”, and it does not set out objective criteria thereby allowing States to self-prescribe "academic achievement standards, assessments, and accountability mechanisms.”

Then there is the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013 (SASA), written and supported by a coalition of Democratic and independent Senators. Contrary to SSA, it proposes amending the ESEA to consolidate federal control of funding. With greater federal control, accountability and transparency measures get broader scope -- for example, strict reporting would be required of career and technical education programs. Then, resources would be redistributed at the district level so that top-tier teachers and resources are aligned with demonstrated need. Finally, teacher evaluations would be made public to inform parents and communities in a more concrete way.

SASA would put lofty and closely scrutinized achievement practices in place, target support for disadvantaged demographic groups, and counteract chronic underperformance -- especially in schools identified as high-poverty. But, how to execute these initiatives is left open-ended. In addition, this bill sends conflicting messages about national adherence by explicitly permitting states to opt-out. It currently remains in the Senate’s Health Education Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee, and has a 14 percent chance of getting signed into law.

We agree with Kati Haycock, President of The Education Trust, that “Senator Harkin’s SASA is a serious effort to establish an appropriate federal role in education — one that expects results for all students while granting states, districts, and schools the flexibility they need to get those results. It is both an improvement on the Committee’s previous proposal and on the Department’s waiver effort.”

Reauthorizing the ESEA is critical for any education reform package. This realization of the link between poverty and educational attainment must remain a central feature as long as the relation exists. Ideally, the solutions presented in the House and Senate bills are combined to advance education reform collaboratively, and set the stage for future high achievement across demographics and subject areas.

Other Solutions?

Despite efforts at reform, a revealing longitudinal study conducted by The National Bureau of Economic Research, and reported in the Wall Street Journal, finds that “substantial overoptimism” of proficiency in key technical fields persists among American students. In other words, students who should have benefited from fifty years of reform have not made significant gains. In fact, the Commerce Department estimates that fewer than forty percent of students entering a STEM field in college graduate with a STEM degree.

In countries from Finland to Canada, a range of approaches to reform have proven effective for improving educational attainment, and all enshrine the understanding that education should have tangible goals, tethered to the real needs of students. In Finnish Lessons
, Pasi Sahlberg -- director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility -- explains what the world can learn from education reform in Finland -- namely, that a focus on equality leads to higher educational attainment across the board. In addition, the professionalism of, and respect for, teachers is a key lesson. These insights into a more holistic view of education reform have been taken on board in recent reform programs in Philadelphia, and troubled public schools in Boston too. Perhaps we should consider indirect approaches as the best way to shift the entire culture of education in America.

Direct and indirect mechanisms for education reform can also influence our thinking about how we teach particular subjects. Math, for example, seems to be a troublesome topic for educators and students alike. In many instances the instruction is over-segmented, and students are easily disconnected from what math teacher Paul Lockhart, author of Measurement
, calls the “beauty and art” of the subject that comes with broader perspective. This “assembly-line” approach makes appreciating the connection between mathematical concepts increasingly difficult to grasp.

We all remember being taught math through rote memorization. And at some point we've all asked ourselves what the point was. For most students, math is just a four letter word because it isn’t taught in a way that feels applicable and necessary in the real world. But, instead of rigorous discussion aimed at reconciling individual learning styles, and explaining the “why’s?” of math, old-school styles of math instruction simply demonstrate how to find the answer to a problem. This, however, might change with the new Common Core math standards. Additional policy discussions in Washington about more imaginative approaches to supplement or augment existing practices could also prove effective for positive math outcomes.

Finally, while most school-age Americans spend a third of their day in school, so little legislative energy is expended to address the actual conditions of education. We should focus on ways to support nurturing climates for instruction, alongside ways to cultivate the natural abilities of students.

Innovative Approaches Taking Root in Washington

The good news is that we’re moving closer to having these debates in Washington, D.C. reports that one-in-ten schools across the country teach computer programming, and initiatives that frame programming as a language are gathering steam in Silicon Valley and nationally. In fact, a proposal was almost added to the Student Success Act. These are among many exciting curriculum additions that states are currently discussing and testing.

In addition, Charter Schools and technical education represent new frontiers within traditional approaches. Efforts are again underway to build momentum for charter legislation in Kentucky -- one of eight states yet to pass a bill allowing charter schools to operate alongside traditional public schools. Reform-minded folks are also focused on legislation known as the Perkins Act, which grants funds to public high schools and two-year colleges for career and technical education programs. The bill was signed into law in 2006 and is due for an update.

Similarly, tech programs that integrate technical and career training into their curricula, like Pathways in Technology Early College High School, have the potential to augment the way we think about the role of higher education. These programs have the power to enhance American competitiveness by preparing students with skills directly transferable to this new economy. Technical and vocational schools -- seen first in New York and later instituted in Chicago -- anticipate what an education pipeline with industry-specific focus looks like in practice. As the demands of the new economy create new patterns of employment, there is no better time to extent the traditional borders of education.

Realistic and comprehensive reform must combine different strategies. It is imperative that we monitor effective approaches, and continue to tinker. We need to keep track of incremental results by administering novel assessments and setting dynamic achievement standards. But cultivating sustainable achievement also requires a long-game approach. We are proposing that revolutionary, rather than incremental steps be taken. When we commit to cultivating a society of well-educated individuals, and not just well-educated individuals, we will no doubt develop the right talent, and in the volumes required to meet our economic needs -- today and tomorrow. But this is a decision we have to make as a nation. In the words of Bayard Rustin, those “needs cannot be satisfied unless we go beyond what has so far been placed on the agenda.”

The problem of STEM talent specifically can be addressed as part of serious and thoughtful education reform. Tangible progress will come when reform seeks to invest more holistically.