Education and Human Capital
The Education Challenge
The performance of the U.S. education system over the next several decades will play a major role in determining how well the United States is able to use science and technology for economic growth and other important national goals. Superior capabilities and skills will be needed to perform in technologically complex occupations and workplaces. Even those who do not go into careers that require advanced education in science and engineering will need basic scientific and technological literacy to function as effective citizens.
Discussion at the forum touched on reports of current shortages of science and technology workers, particularly information technology workers. Immigrant scientists and engineers have been and will continue to be important in addressing needs for talent. However, enabling greater numbers of native-born Americans, particularly members of underrepresented minorities, to enter these careers is a difficult and important long-term challenge.
In contrast with other subjects of forum discussions, such as the strengths of the U.S. innovation system that have reemerged in recent years, the U.S. education system clearly is not performing at a standard adequate to meet our future needs. That is particularly true of K-12 education. Although the educational challenges were widely recognized over a decade ago, U.S. students still are performing at average or below-average levels in mathematics and science, compared with students in other countries (National Center for Education Statistics,
1999). A study of middle school students showed that around 40 percent were ''disengaged'' (Steinberg, 1996).
Improving K-12 education is a difficult, complex, long-term task. Most of the burden lies with states and localities; improving the performance of schools and school systems will require long-term partnerships with parents, communities, and industry. The federal government can play an important role in promoting high standards for students and teachers, and as a funder in specific fields, such as early education. Although the forum did not aspire to address all aspects of the topic, several important issues were raised and discussed extensively.
Utilization of Information Technology in Education
One of the important questions facing U.S. education is that of the most effective use of information technology to enhance education while preparing students for the twenty-first century workplace. A recent report has called for a massive program to deploy computers in elementary and secondary schools (President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1997). Yet the forum discussions raised several caveats about whether a $13 billion investment in computers would yield the highest educational returns, as opposed to other potential uses, even assuming that this scale of investment is possible.26
When computers are applied in various fields of human endeavor, the first use generally is to automate a task that already is being performed. The value of computers is unlocked when they are used to reach the original goal in a profoundly different way. Today, the underlying model for using technology in education is still automated drill, which was developed in the 1960s. There is nothing wrong with automated drill; it can help to improve student performance. But this can be accomplished with devices that are much less expensive than today's personal computer.
Educators around the United States are coming up with innovative uses of information technology to enrich educational experiences. One example in the humanities is the Valley of the Shadow archive developed by historian Edward Ayers, of the University of Virginia.27 The archive contains detailed records on Staunton, Virginia, and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, for the period before and during the Civil War. It is a potent educational tool that is very different from a traditional textbook. The author cannot control the order in which a student progresses through the information or the detours that he or she takes. The teacher engages the students in scholarship instead of rote learning. Students are encouraged and guided in their own research projects.
"It seems to me that if we're serious about education, and we have to be serious about it, we need to step back and take a long view. We need to be willing to make fundamental changes, not just use technology to do what we are already doing a little bit better."
—Wm. A. Wulf
Information technology probably will challenge other traditional assumptions about how we educate. For example, the lecture format and the organization of courses in universities are designed to optimize faculty time and the use of buildings, rather than to maximize learning. New approaches that more effectively use student-to-student interactions and allow for flexible approaches to organizing classes can be developed with information technology. Nevertheless, the compartmentalized institutional model of education is likely to hold on for some time, even when the assumptions behind it are rapidly becoming obsolete.
Information technology undoubtedly will have a profound effect on education in the long-term. In the meantime, the returns on investments in educational information technology and the opportunity costs should be assessed carefully.
Promoting a Revolution in K-12 Science and Mathematics Teaching
Although America's educational problems probably are not amenable to a quick fix of massive spending on personal computers for schools, even if it were desirable, several long-term efforts could yield considerable dividends.28 The scientific community already has been engaged in the education reform movement through the development of standards for science education, which state that science should be a core subject in every year of school starting in kindergarten, that science should be for all students, not just those who might become engineers or scientists, and that science education should focus on inquiry-based learning rather than rote memorization (NRC, 1996b). The National Academies and other scientific and engineering leaders also can play roles by supporting and disseminating best practices in science education.
Two issues particularly relevant to improved K-12 science and mathematics
education were identified during the forum discussions: attracting superior talent to the teaching profession and improving science and mathematics curricula.
Today, there is an opportunity to attract young scientists and engineers to nonresearch careers. It will be important to create new pathways for talented young people to enter teaching and to change the academic culture in which advisers tell their students that they are failures if they do not go into academic research. One innovative program discussed at the forum is Teach for America, a nonprofit program that selects 500 young people per year with nontraditional backgrounds to teach for two years in urban and rural schools.29 The prospective teachers are given 5 weeks of training in a "boot camp" setting the summer prior to their assignment.
Launched in 1989, Teach for America has a track record of improving education. At any time, 1,000 teachers in the program are having an influence on the lives of 100,000 young people. Although the program has been criticized by some in the education establishment, there is considerable competition for Teach for America positions, and the program attracts $5 million per year from corporations, foundations, and individuals. Participants are expected to teach for 2 years, but many decide to stay in the field.
A second task taken up in the forum discussions is improving science curricula. All over the country, curricula are being developed in accord with the National Science Education Standards. Many worthwhile examples are aimed at elementary school students. One example is the curriculum developed by the National Science Resources Center, a joint activity of the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution. Other organizations, such as the Lawrence Hall of Science, are producing similar curricula, many of which are available on the Internet.
At the middle school and high school levels, textbooks are being written to meet state specifications that are too detailed; the results are often dull and even scientifically incorrect texts. However, here too, local grassroots efforts by individual teachers and nonprofits to develop better curricula are beginning to blossom. The Internet is facilitating exchange and mutual reinforcement among these efforts. Major experiments are under way in asynchronous learning networks: high school teachers are putting courses up on the World Wide Web and using them to teach students all over the country. The National Academies and other scientific and engineering leaders can play roles by encouraging such efforts and convening networks.
See the Teach for America World Wide Web site at www.teachforamerica.org.
Lifelong Learning for a Technologically Sophisticated Workforce
In addition to educational foundations, improving America's human resource base for science- and technology-led economic growth will require the spread of a new culture that values lifelong learning and continuing education and the institutions to support them. Educational institutions are changing to meet the needs of a changing body of students, including pursuit of innovative, market-oriented strategies. For example, the private, for-profit University of Phoenix addresses the specific needs of major employer groups which can partner with them in planning and designing their educational offerings. Such partnership keeps educational institutions in tune with changing markets and needs. Although most of the University of Phoenix's offerings are business-oriented, as opposed to scientific and engineering, it serves as an interesting new model and a challenge to the education orthodoxy.
The National Technological University (NTU) is another useful example. NTU give engineering courses to working professionals through distance learning technologies. Close links with industry customers allow NTU to stay current in industry trends and current educational needs. The use of distance learning technologies makes it possible for courses to be flexibly scheduled.
A number of U.S. research universities already have substantial lifelong learning programs, such as the School of Continuing Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Other universities seeking to establish or expand continuing education programs can learn from these examples.
In summary, the United States must invest in the future workforce by providing students with a firm understanding of science and mathematics in addition to a command of oral and written communication skills. Advances in science and technology have created new resources for improving K-12 education and have made possible new types of educational institutions to meet changing needs.
"[We need to strengthen] education of technical people once they enter the workplace. Here the focus should be on lifetime learning, and on iterative programs that take employees through university courses—either in specific geographic locations or on the Web. For large transnational organizations, this may evolve to situations where corporations—not individual students—are the prime university customer."
|This page in the original is blank.|