Monday, August 31, 2009

My Lucky Day - commentry

I swear it was my lucky day. An article in the Nov. 7, issue of the New York Times, reporting on research published in the American Medical Association Journal says being overweight extends my mortality. Of course this is contrary to everything we’ve been told for the past many years, but it is enough to keep me from ever going on a diet again. Do you ever wonder whose research to believe? I do too. It doesn’t just happen in health issues, it also happens in education.

"The Great Tech Worker Divide," an article in the October 10, issue of Business Week reports that people like Bill Gates are lobbying congress to pass immigration laws to make it easier to import foreign scientists and engineers to fill a shortage in this country. Yet an article that appeared in the October 26 issue of Business Week, "The Science Education Myth," claims our colleges are turning out a surplus of scientists and engineers, that we have more than enough students enrolled in science, math, and engineering courses, and that our secondary students are out performing those from most other countries in the world. Sounds a bit contrary to what you’ve been hearing, doesn’t it?

Statistics, like a picture, freeze a subject in time. That picture of yourself that you don't like is just a representation of you for 1/125th of a second. Had it been snapped a second earlier or later, it would have been a different picture. The same thing happens with statistics. While a statistic freezes reality, time rapidly moves on. Meanwhile, bureaucracies which respond to problems disclosed by the statistics move excruciatingly slow. By the time a huge bureaucracy responds, reality has changed and the response is often all wrong. Do you remember the panic in the 1970's over the supposed teacher shortage? The government put a massive program in place and by the time it got rolling, all it accomplished was to produce a huge surplus of teachers with dozens applying for every available job. In many districts, the only way you could get a teaching job was to substitute for two or three years first.

Consider also that what researchers choose to plug into a statistic can alter the nature of a problem. For example, we had been told for years that test scores are declining. Because of this, we have spent billions trying to boost them and have succeeded to a very modest extent. However, I think researchers are analyzing the wrong data. What I want to know is whether there has been a decline over the years in the test scores of the top 30 to 40 per cent of those tested. If so, then we have a problem. The reality is that we only need so many doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other professionals.

As late as the 1950's, we were only educating about half of our young people much beyond the eighth grade. Now, we try to leave no child behind through grade 12, so it is not surprising that the average test score has declined. And, it is not that I want to ignore the bottom 25 or 30 per cent; it’s just that I wonder why we insist that they get an academic education.

If some researcher will answer the question about the test scores of the top 30 or 40 per cent, please let me know. Until then, let's look at some of the conclusions of Urban Institute's Hal Salzman and Georgetown University professor Lindsay Lowell in the afore mentioned article, "The Science and Education Myth."

The article talks about separate incidences in which both Bill Gates and President Bush stated the U.S. is falling behind in knowledge workers and we need to encourage more students to enroll in math and science courses.

Salzman and Lowell found the reverse to be true. They found both the number of students taking math and science courses and the number of units taken per student has increased steadily since 1982. They also found increases in math and science scores in the SAT and the ACT over the past two decades.

"...the report found that the U.S. is one of only a few nations that has consistently shown improvement over time," the article said.

"There isn't a problem with the capability of American children....Science and engineering graduates just don't see enough opportunity in these professions to continue further study or to take employment."

The article also states, "Proposals to increase the supply of scientists and engineers rapidly, without any objective evidence of comparably rapid growth in attractive career opportunities for such professionals, might actually be doing harm." As with the teachers, it would create a surplus and drive wages down. Some in the high tech industries believe that is actually what people like Gates are trying to do by lobbying for less restrictive immigration for scientists and engineers.

Well, I guess my question about how things are going with our top tier students has been answered. So, who benefits from all the negativity that gets thrown at us constantly? Remember, education is a $500 billion business and as long as it appears to be failing, those who profit from it can insist on our government spending even more. Serious problems need solutions and solutions need money.

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