On July 7 The Aspen Institute held a public panel with some corporate leaders and policymakers on American competitiveness. It was aired on C-SPAN on 7/21.
Update 5-24-2013: You can see the discussion here, from C-SPAN. The partial transcript I give below of this panel’s discussion is from the C-SPAN broadcast. This panel was part of the Aspen Ideas Festival.
The panelists were Stephen Friedman, Gene Sperling of the Center for American Progress; Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate Corporation; James Turley, Chairman & CEO of Ernst & Young; and Robert Steel, Treasury Undersecretary for Domestic Finance.
They talked about a few topics: the state of the U.S. economy today, ideas about competitiveness, concerns about having an educated work force for the future, and issues in the financial markets. I’m going to focus a little on the 2nd one, but mostly the 3rd one. I edited down comments to focus on these two topics. Also, I did a little editing of what they said with some annotations in ‘s. When people speak contemporaneously sometimes they say stuff that doesn’t read well. They kind of stumble over their words, etc. So in a few cases I put what I think they meant to say more clearly. I put some commentary of my own in between what I’m quoting.
What was interesting to me is there was a lot of energy around what I’d call “Silicon Valley issues,” mainly concerns about having an adequately educated work force for the future. That’s why I’m talking about this.
Stephen Friedman functioned as a participant and moderator. He said that the current state of the economy is good, and the current state of our competitiveness is good. He said, however, there are some serious issues that our country faces in the future. The topic he set for discussion was on American competitiveness. Gene Sperling spoke first.
Gene Sperling: . . .When I’m framing and thinking about what the competitive challenge is I think we have to ask ourselves, “How are we competing for the new middle class jobs of the future?” Not simply, “How can our companies get the highest degree of productivity by getting the most efficient supply chain?” They need to do that, but how do we encourage them, not out of patriotism, but out of their economic logic, to want to locate more of the high value-added jobs here? I think that’s the discussion that we’re not having enough in the United States.
Let’s just kind of tick off the kind of things you’d be thinking about. Why are we not competing like crazy for the R&D jobs of the future? This is the high value-added job production, yet there’s a BusinessWeek survey that shows that in telecom, of the exciting research things being done by U.S. companies, 52 out of 57 are happening outside of here. National Institute of Health has actually had a real cut in research. We spend 300-400 billion more a year on tax cuts and prescription drugs. We don’t have any money to increase the research, the innovation, to help see if we can create more clusters of innovation that make it attractive for the innovation to be here.
The R&D jobs, the university competitiveness, that’s where we still have the lead. Why aren’t we doing everything to maximize that lead? Then, what are we doing to encourage scientists? Yes, we should have more liberalization of the highest skilled immigrants being able to stay here. The highest skilled, with Ph.D.’s, and masters in engineering. We should have more ability for them to stay here, but that shouldn’t be our long-term plan. Our long-term plan should be to go after the untapped pool of skills that are here. I think you had Shirley Ann Jackson here earlier. The 35% of women in the workforce that only make up 10-15% of the science and technology pool, the 24% of Americans who are African-American, disabled; or Hispanics who make up 5-7%. We need to be reaching down, encouraging our own pool. Cutting NIH funding is the most discouraging thing for new scientists possible. We talk about these things, that we want more scientists, and yet when you look at the path they have to go through, the pay scale, and then what they have to do just now to get cuts in research grants, we do virtually everything to discourage them. Lowering health care costs would make job creation more attractive here, and then there’s just things that just make no sense at all. Why we don’t invest in early 0-5 education, when we know the cognitive abilities that you need to be flexible, and to think, and adjust in the economy, come the earliest in life. Those are some of the issues that are not often enough on a competitiveness agenda. So I think we want to ask ourselves not just how do we maximize productivity. How do we do that while also focusing in non-protectionist, non-luddite ways on how we make it more attractive, often through public investment, to have more of the new middle class jobs of the future located here so that Americans still believe that an open global economy is a rising tide that does lift all boats and creates an inclusive middle class where everybody can work their way up, which is what our entire country was founded on?
Thomas Wilson: As an employer, of course, what we want are educated, motivated people, and we’re not getting them in America today, which is why we’re going other places. We all know that K-12 is a disaster in America, and we’re not really doing anything about it. I think part of the blame is on business. I think business needs to speak out. Business in general has sort of gotten to, “I’m only going to politicians so they’ll give me what I want for my specific interest, and I’m not going to demand other things of them.” I think businesses need to start demanding from our government a better education system. That’s what we pay them for and that’s what they should do. I’m struck by how the whole education thing seems to be stuck in the mud. Everybody’s got their own corner, whether it’s competitiveness or teachers’ salaries, or teachers’ jobs, and nobody is doing anything really that looks like it will change the effort, and if it was a problem in our company we’d put some real focus behind it, and we’d do something different.
Wilson said something to the effect of “I think we need a Marshall Plan for education.” He went on to propose a plan that in my opinion was naive. He proposed giving the federal government 75 billion dollars over the next 5 years to spend on education priorities. Great. If only Washington worked that way. You give the federal government money and it flies to the Four Winds, going to all sorts of interests. There’s no guarantee all of it would go to education.
In that vein, Friedman asked a follow-up question of Wilson:
Friedman: The U.S. spends something like 3 times more than I think the next largest spender on K-12 education. Somehow it seems to be working in our colleges, which are considered to be the best in the world. In K-12 it isn’t working. We spend the money, and if we look at the standardized tests we trail Latvia and 25 other countries in terms of math performance. What are we doing wrong?
Wilson: Everyone’s got their own things. I would do a bunch of things different, but I think you need money to do it differently. We spend more money on R&D than everybody else, too. We spend more money on defense than everybody else.
Friedman: We like to think we get a payoff.
Wilson: We do, but we also have this standard that every dollar in education has to be well spent. As far as I know, every bomb we drop on Iraq isn’t hitting its mark. So I’m like, “Look, let’s look at it in total. Let’s do something different.” I recognize some of the money will be inefficient, but politically teachers would like this, construction unions would like this, parents would like it. Economically, in Chicago where I live, a bunch of the money spent in the school system is on fixing crappy old buildings. Well that money can’t go into teacher training. I just think we have to recognize it’s broken. Let’s put some money behind it and do something differently. Maybe it’s not 75 billion from the federal government, but somebody needs to do something, because right now everybody’s in their corners and nobody’s coming together.
As I indicated above I wasn’t impressed with Wilson’s education plan, because there’s no real strategy. It just sounds like, “Okay people! Don’t just stand there. Do something!” Nevertheless, Wilson makes a good point on the way education spending works now. What it sounds like to me he’s saying here, and Gene Sperling gets into this later, too, is that we should not treat education like every other government program, but rather as a form of government funded research. When you’re doing research (properly, anyway) you don’t fund it based on immediate results. You’re going to get a bunch of things that don’t pan out. What you count on is the few gems that pay off big, and make up for the flops, and then some. Interesting idea.
James Turley: I think the corporate community has got to step up as well, around K-12 education, and not leave it just to a Marshall Plan. I think the Marshall Plan idea is a good one, but I think that companies have a responsibility here as well. When I moved to New York in ’98 I found that we had been involved with the Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx, as one little micro example, and our people volunteer their time in mentoring students. Now, those of you from New York, Adlai Stevenson High School is a school that has a graduation rate of something in the mid to high teens. Our people mentor these students. They don’t pick the easiest ones, they pick the toughest ones. Over the last 15+ years we’ve mentored 600-700 students to a graduation rate of 95%. And so I think that when companies [applause from the audience]…thank you…When companies involve their employees, involve their efforts, I think it compounds the effectiveness of funds that come from governments, and I think it’s something that is past time for the corporate community to step up to.
Robert Steel: I think it’s clear that the linkage here is between this issue of income gap that’s unattractive, as Gene describes, for lots of reasons in our country, [and] this issue of education. Twenty-five years ago someone who graduated from high school vs. someone that went to college, the gap was about 20-25%. Today it’s 45-50%. So basically the return on education is rising, and as you were saying earlier this is based on productivity, and education drives productivity. People that don’t have the education can’t be more productive and this is exacerbated and highlighted by the use of technologies and tools. If you’re not trained to use the technology and the tools and to have the skills to think broadly about how to use and think about the tools of the future, and the skills, then you’re destined to have this gap continue to widen. So it really is an issue of education. It is the key secret weapon to attacking this income disparity. If you don’t attack education, you cannot solve it by trying to take from this group to give to that group. It’s basically got to be driven by the skills, and that’s got to be the focus. The economics and the science is really clear, that this is really the issue. We have to accept that as a society if we want to tackle this.
Wilson: We have claim adjusters go around, and fix cars and houses, and stuff like that, and we have computers that they use. One of our leaders was with one of them and the person was taking all the stuff down on a piece of paper. He [the leader] said, “How come you’re not using our new computer,” which was in her trunk. She said, “Because I don’t really know how to use it, and I’m embarrassed, and I’m really slow, and I’m faster with our customers this way.” An intelligent choice on her part. But from our standpoint as an employer, if I can have somebody in India do that over the phone who knows the computer, who does it faster, who gets an entire system, it’s cheaper. Why would I not do that? So finding a way to teach people to get contemporary when the world changes so fast–We all have the benefit of coming here [to the Aspen Institute event], and we learn, but I think we have to find a way to have lifelong learning, and we haven’t cracked that code.
Steel: This is all at the issue of outsourcing. Your customers, our clients, Goldman’s clients, all want the right talent in the right place at the right price. Sadly today the right place is probably the least important of those three. Technology is making that by far the least important. So I think the right talent is fundamental, and that’s where this whole issue of education comes in. And you’re right, it doesn’t stop. When you hire someone it really begins at that stage as well. It’s life-long.
Friedman: Lifelong education is crucial, but if you talk to the people who are enormous users of this talent, the technology industry, they will tell you over and over, “Where we need the help is in the early stages, in K-, because if you lose them there, you’ve lost them.” So it seems to me, though, that we still haven’t gotten at the root of the problem of why it isn’t working. We’ve talked about some fixes. Gene, you’ve studied this stuff. Let’s give you a chance for a “Nixon goes to China” moment. To what extent is this problem related to the elephant in the room that we’re not talking about: A bureacratic, encrusted bureaucracy, and unions that are resistant to new practices?
Sperling: I think trying to single out teachers unions is not productive. I think what the most innovative people are doing is trying to break those things down, and work together. I think the smartest superintendents, I think, are trying to do that. Certainly there’s always resistance.
Just to make a point or two, I do agree that number one is education. I said this in our earlier panel, you have to be honest with people a little, too, which is to say that education has never been more important, but it’s never been less of a sure thing, too. A college education is your best bet. A graduate education is a better bet, but a college education is less protection against globalization. So it’s going to increase your chances. It’s never been more important, but you’re still going to have people facing that competition, and we have to be honest with them that it’s still the best thing to maximize.
Secondly, though, it’s not the only thing people base location on, and I think looking at the broader issues of competitiveness, whether it’s health care costs, how modern our infrastructure is, what the tax incentives are for our jobs, also should be part of it.
I’ll answer your question in this way. Tom has made one of the most important points, and I just want to put an exclamation mark on it. The dynamic that happens in Washington is the following. You have a proposal. You see this with, like, Headstart. People will come out, and they try to get–There’s a study that shows that it’s not working quite well. The people who are coming out with those studies, [the] solution they want [is] we shouldn’t spend a lot of money on early pre-K. So what happens is that everybody kind of rallies to defend that. So you get this problem where you get less innovation, less experimentation, and less admitting things are wrong. And what bothers me about that mentality is–and this was Tom’s point–we don’t say that about cancer. We don’t say, “Boy, you know, the first few experiments didn’t work.” If we took the approach that he is suggesting; if we said it is just inexcusable. The situation for young black males in our country is a national disgrace, it is an outrage, it is a disgrace. We should all be ashamed it exists every day. We should be ashamed at what a disadvantage a child has by the accident of their birth, by the time they’re 5 years old. Now let’s do something about it like it’s AIDS, or cancer. Let’s have that research. Now, if you then said we are committed as a country to spending what it needs to fix that, then we would encourage all the experimentation and innovation. People would be then willing to admit that they missed a few bombs, that it failed, because they knew it wasn’t going to be undercutting the whole enterprise. It was going to be suggesting that we try the slightly different [approach]. So, one, I think if we had that attitude that we are willing to spend the resources, and it’s okay to admit things aren’t working, because it doesn’t mean we’ll spend less–it might mean we spend more, but in a better, smarter way–I think we’d have a better attitude. And secondly, one thing we could at least do, Stephen, is fund the things we know that work. Teach For America is an amazing success. How can it be that they’re taking 1 out of 10 Ivy League school kids who want to go teach in underprivileged areas? One of the things that’s incredibly successful are these early intervention programs where colleges, businesses are reaching kids, 5th, 6th grade, and trying with them some of the expectations that a person like myself born into an upper-middle class family was just born with. A lot of these things are working. So one of the things we should ask ourselves is why are we not replicating and expanding the things that we at least know are working, that are affecting the motivation, and aspiration of young people?
I thought Sperling’s comments were good in some spots, especially when he said that a college education was not a ticket to a sure thing. It’s not insurance against facing foreign competition anymore. I’d say that’s very true. Your situation can be better if you have a college education, but you can’t rest on your laurels after college. You’re still going to be facing foreign competition.
The only way I can see that treating education like a crisis that needs extra attention is going to happen is if there is a major push by the Department of Education, and perhaps the National Science Foundation and such, and industry, to put out a consistent message to the public that it’s a crisis that needs to be warded off, and what the consequences will be if it’s not. This is not unlike the campaigns we’ve seen around the whole global warming issue. People need to feel that their children’s lives will be negatively affected if “something isn’t done,” so to speak, to create that sense of urgency. The solution needs to be clearly presented as well. Otherwise, as with so many past education reform efforts, they can get watered down and warped into people’s pet projects, and the original goal gets lost. It can’t just be a top-down thing, which is what’s been tried in the past. There needs to be public awareness of the issue and what the solutions are, so parents can apply pressure from below as well. I think such a shift in thinking would have better results than what the global warming campaigners are trying to achieve, because the current situation is largely a result of careerism, bureaucracy, and politics, all things the government has some control over. Having said this it’s not going to be easy. Bureaucrats know the game a lot better than politicians do. They’ve been at it for decades. Politicians come and go.
Then came questions from the audience. Most of them were pertinent to the topics I’m emphasizing here.
Kim Anderson: My name is Kim Anderson. I’m from Minneapolis. I make automobile parts for domestic and foreign vehicles, and do it profitably. I would like each individual’s brief opinion in terms of where we are competitively in America, and in the world.
Thomas Wilson: Kim, I think we’re very competitive, but I think we need to change our mindset in terms of where our public infrastructure is. Today there’s many more opportunities, many more places for companies and capital to go, whether that be Asia, or Mexico, or various other places. We’ve not yet come to grips with the fact in this country that we’re competing with these other countries. And so we need an education system. We need effective government to do that. I’m worried that it might be too late. There’s a line out of a–I think it’s an F. Scott Fitzgerald book–that says, “How did you go bankrupt?” And it was “Gradually, and then suddenly.” [laughter] I’m worried that we have not yet woken up to the fact that America is competing.
Robert Steel: 100% agree. Basically, the competition’s gotten better. They’ve taken our playbook. Everywhere around the world, people are using the market-based mechanism to allocate resources. They’ve discovered that this has the best chance of creating growth, higher employment, lower inflation. And basically we’ve got to keep getting better and not be complacent in order to stay the best.
Sperling made some interesting comments about reducing risk for everyday people, so they’d feel freer about taking some chances in an attempt to improve their lives.
Gene Sperling: . . . I think we also have to figure out ways that we can do more for workers without [having] the problems that you’ve seen where you’re discouraging job taking. So for example Universal Health Care, or things like wage insurance. These are things that help workers in between jobs, that they don’t discourage people from getting back and looking for new jobs. They’re not the type of European model that actually gives you perhaps an incentive to stay off the job. So I think we can be smart about getting the best of having more economic security, without, as Steve likes to say, killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. One thing I want to remember when it comes to individual people, Bob Scheuer [I may have misspelled the name] has a really interesting book on risk-taking for individuals. One of the reasons you can take risks in small business here is if you fail, if you try and fail, you don’t go to debtors prison. You go to bankruptcy. It’s not easy, but you can start again and try again. I think for a lot of people in the United States we want people to feel that way with their own lives, that they can take risks on new jobs and new companies, on starting their own businesses, and not feel, as I feel a lot of Americans feel, that the fall is going to be so deep and so devastating that they start taking less risks themselves. And that’s the way I think having a bit more economic security for more workers can actually make people less risk [averse], and more willing to accept an open and innovative economy, and to take chances on their own higher education, knowing that if they missed, there’s 2nd and 3rd chances in our economy.
What he’s talking about is generally called “insurance”, but it sounds like he’s expanding the concept into more areas, such as going back to school in an attempt to open up more job prospects. The thing is there’s got to be some pain for failure, otherwise you run into the problem of “moral hazard”, where people will take risks carelessly because they know somebody will always bail them out. I’m not saying we don’t sometimes run afoul of moral hazard. Anytime the government bails out a business, they’re risking encouraging more bad behavior from them in the future, but the government tends to do this for companies that are “too big to fail”. In other words, letting them collapse totally would make a noticeably negative dent in our economy.
Among other things, Stephen Friedman made this comment about where most enterprising college students are going:
Stephen Friedman: . . . We have too damn many of our best college kids going into financial services, businesses. They could be doing lots of other stuff. We have too many lawyers, too many investment bankers, too many kids whose deepest aspiration in life is to be a hedge fund guy, rather than being a scientist, or doing something else.
Funny. I remember my late grandfather used to complain about the same thing 20 years ago. Nothing has changed, apparently.
Bill Coman: Bill Coman, serial entreprenuer, Silicon Valley. The important thing is that [the] last two years I’ve been the Chairman of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, 210 companies, a trillion dollars in revenue, and we believe we’re losing our international competitiveness. It’s all about brains. It’s all about brains in our schools, and it’s all about being able to hire them. 53% of our engineers in Silicon Valley are foreign-born. Here’s an example. Biotech is the leading growth industry. $62-billion in revenue. The largest growth industry in high-tech in California today. The seedcorn is Ph.D.’s. Over 50% of the Ph.D.’s in the world are graduated from universities in the United States. This year before one could be hired, all H1-B visas were gone. We will hire them, and we’ll hire them in India and China, and we’ll grow the next level of research over there. So, a two-part proposal for Tom’s Marshall Plan. Very simple. First, STEM is what it’s called: Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. Every graduate degree granted in the United States should get at least a 5-year visa, renewable; lift the caps on H1-B visas internationally for bringing those people in. This is where we’re going to build the next-generation companies. Second, K-12 education. The biggest problem is teachers. A disgrace. The average teacher makes between $40,000-50,000 a year. How are we going to attract and retain those people? I love Teach For America, but most of them will not stay teaching for 30-40 years. The problem is 1) we’ve got to give them better lifetime training, and 2) we have to give them a salary they can live on.
This is a very naive plan, but some part of it should be looked at. For half the cost of the Iraq war today we can double their salaries. Now let me tell you what I mean. There’s about 1 million teachers, K-12. That’s 40-50 billion dollars a year. We’re spending well over 100 billion dollars a year [I assume he means on the Iraq war]. Take a program, put [a] 10-year sunset on it to transfer to state and local. Divide into two parts for that 40-50 billion to double their salaries. One-third pays for their summer. A volunteer program in which they can go get continuing education for the rest of their lives. Two-thirds is a program that we have to figure out how to keep from being run by politicians in which we can give a bonus to teachers for [the] results of their students. That could double or triple the [salaries] for the best teachers. We’ve learned [that] we have one model here that really works. We have the best college education system in the world. It’s because we compete for students and we compete for teachers. And the third thing is, find some way to leverage–and this is really going to be the hardest part–through some sort of vouchers, the advantages we’re seeing in the KIPP, in the charter kinds of programs, so that students can be competitive. [Lots of applause from the audience]
Well at least Mr. Coman was being honest with himself when he said it’s a naive plan. It sounds like the outline of a policy idea that deserves a look in terms of setting up programs for teachers. As far as allocating the money for it the way he suggests, that’s pie in the sky, unless it can be specifically set aside in legislation. I wouldn’t believe it until I saw it passed with the President’s signature, though.
Friedman: Bill Coman founded one of the great technology successes, so he’s a man who speaks not only from a tremendous practical basis, but also, obviously, in a conceptual level. Is there a website you could cite this group to, so people could look at your program, and study it, and get their minds around it?
Coman: I wish the whole program was together, but we have parts of it. It’s the Silicon Valley Leadership Group [http://www.svlg.net/] website. We have proposals in these areas. . . . It’s not all there, by the way.
Maybe there’s more at the svlg.net site now.
Friedman: One of the points that Bill made, which I just would like to underscore: It’s not just getting those scientists, and those brains in to do the current work of the corporation. As Tom has mentioned, he’d love to hire Americans, but if he can’t get the ones he needs, he is going to get that work done overseas. That’s not good for the U.S., but in many ways the worst part of it is if we don’t have the people doing the work here, when the guy spins off from Allstate, and founds a technology company that revolutionizes some area of the business, he’s doing it in Mumbai or in China. Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, is a Russian immigrant. We really need those spin-off businesses. It’s this tremendous viral system that we have to keep going here. So I think there’s room for passion on this issue.
Sperling: I negotiated the last H1-B increase in the Clinton Administration, and it was an interesting experience. [laughter] Very interesting. If you want to get stuff done policy-wise, you have to understand the legitimate concerns of others. I think there’s a trust issue, and I think, Tom, this would be a great area to see Silicon Valley and others reach out. Here’s the trust issue: the typical worker needs to believe that they’re not just being passed over for no reason. A lot of workers look at this and think–If I’ve heard the number of times somebody said to me, “Here’s an article about engineers laid off in a city. And here’s an article about somebody complaining that there’s an engineering shortage in the same city.” The H1-B program is probably not a great program because it kind of includes kind of very semi-skilled and then very high-skilled. I think what would make more sense is to have unlimited immigration for the highest skilled, for the truly best and brightest, the Ph.D.’s, who will help you keep your jobs here. But I think the trade-off for doing that is really showing the typical person, who’s lost their job somewhere, that the reason someone’s going somewhere else is not just because it was going to take an extra 3 months to train them, or it’s just slightly more costly to do so. I think there were a lot of articles written about the so-called engineering shortage. I think this is an area where we could actually bring people together. I think if you could create greater trust that there was more happening to train every worker you could, you could get more acceptance of the immigration at the highest level. I think that’s a place to come together.
I just have to emphasize one of the other points you said. It’s just easy to sit there and say everybody should become a scientist, etc. I’ve got to tell you, my sister, [a] tenured scientist in immunology [at the] University of Chicago. I admire her like I admire people who work in refugee camps. I mean that! I mean, she could’ve gone to med school. She could’ve gotten into 3 of the top 5 law schools! It is a total sacrifice of income and comfort to do something that’s greatly in our national interest. And then we freeze NIH for 3 years, so they have to lay off their grad students, and the people in their labs. I mean, if we’re serious about all this stuff about encouraging science and teachers then we [have] got to actually make it easier for real live sons and daughters of ours to actually feel that those are attractive paths to go into. That’s a public policy issue we could do something about. [applause from the audience]
I thought this was Sperling’s best comment of the day. Over the last few years I’ve read articles about scientists finding that it’s not attractive to work in the U.S. and that research institutions here make it hard for them. I read through Philip Greenspun’s ”career guide” on his site. He basically said that there’s a surplus of scientists in academia; that it’s actually hard for Ph.D. scientists to get teaching positions in universities, and even if they do, the pay isn’t that good. If they fail to get a teaching position, by the time they’ve realized this they’re “over the hill” in terms of their “age of eligibility” for working in industry. So some end up being “sent out to pasture”. Not very uplifting.
At this point in the discussion it got to be a bit difficult tell who was saying what, so some of the attributions I give here might be incorrect. An anonymous questioner asked:
I was wondering if I could gather some data before I ask my question. Could I get the educational experience of your children, K-12, on the panel? Maybe where they went to school?
Thomas Wilson: K-12?
Questioner: K-12. Steve, where did your kids go to school? K-12.
Friedman: We started out our oldest in public school in New York. It was an idealistic and noble experiment, which lasted two weeks. [laughter] And then they all went to private schools in New York.
(The questioner called out each other person’s name one by one during the course of this interaction.)
Turley: We have one son, and he went to public schools throughout in St. Louis, in Minnesota, and in New York.
Questioner: In the cities?
Turley: No. In the Scarsdales. So it’s sort of semi-private. [laughter] And then there’s Northwestern.
Wilson: Three kids, all in private school.
Steel: Started school in England, and then regular local schools, and then to private schools, and universities.
Sperling: My 15-month-old is still…[laughter] I inherited a 12-year-old and I’d say he’s gone about 5 years to public school and 2 years to private school.
Questioner: The point is will we ever change K-12 when all the powerful people opt out for private schools, or quasi-private schools (Scarsdales), and until this happens are we really going to change K-12?
Sperling: I cannot tell you what a good question I think this is. And you’re right. I moved my son from public schools in L.A., and my wife making this whole move wanted to make sure that he was in private schools–the first time anybody in our entire family, brothers and sisters, anybody, had ever done it. I do it because I’ve got to do what’s best for my 12-year-old. But I’ve got to tell you, I feel like I am part of an apartheid system in Washington, D.C. I feel terrible about it. I’m not willing to make an experiment on my son, but I think public policy-wise you’re absolutely right. And to be honest, if I had sent him to a public school it wouldn’t have mattered anyways, because you have two private school systems: One, you pay high tuition, the other, you pay a huge premium on your house so you can say you’re going to public schools…
Questioner: That’s quasi-private.
Sperling: That’s quasi-private school. You’re absolutely right. And you know what? I don’t want to deny that I’m doing it, and I feel terrible about it, but I’m still going to do what’s best for my 12-year-old. The only way I can feel good is to make sure that I don’t let that affect what I do policy-wise. I spend all my life, you know, trying to focus to make sure kids in public schools are getting a chance again. That’s just the truth. [applause from the audience]
Friedman: Let me come back to that point. There’s no question that when you have active, aggressive parents who demand the services, and Scarsdales is certainly an epitome of that, you’re going to get different results. I don’t think that you have to be the head of a Fortune 100 company to understand that your kids’ futures depend on education. I think most of the people in this audience probably came from families where education was an important part of life, even if it was a Depression era and there was no money around. I think the real question is why are the average parents in America willing to live with a school–You know, when they do the studies they find that people tend to be satisfied with their own school system. They’re underdemanding consumers. Why are they satisfied with a system that has their kids’ comparative standings on the standardized tests so poor against the rest of the world? I don’t understand it. I don’t understand. There’s a market failure, but I don’t think that only rich people can drive very successful school systems.
Lorraine Harrison (not sure about spelling): My name’s Lorraine Harrison from Silicon Valley. I had two recent ‘ah-ha’ experiences I wanted to communicate. Recently my son graduated from Princeton. 50% of the students in the Economics Department were going to Wall Street. In fact, most of the engineering people were going to Wall Street. The second experience I had was in India. I went to a girls’ middle school. We asked them to raise their hands and say, “What do they want to do in their future?” This is all girls. 90% of them either wanted to be software engineers or doctors [my emphasis]. There’s no way in the U.S. that that would happen at a girls’ middle school. So what can we do to get the motivations of these kids focused on innovative jobs?
Friedman: On which jobs?
Harrison: On innovative jobs. Engineering, and science. Our kids are not thinking about that.
Sperling: Shirley Ann Jackson I think was here earlier. She talks about this. I mean, you mentioned girls. We have a workforce that is not going to grow as much as it did. So in the past we’ve produced more college educated, more science and tech people, just by kind of labor force growth. Now we’ve got to actually get more people in a kind of more stagnant pool to want to do those things. The people who are not seeking those jobs are girls, young women. 35% are in the workforce, but they make up only 10-15% of science and technology. A lot of them lose interest around 6th and 7th grade. They’re outperforming boys earlier.
I’m so against any kind of segregation, but I have to say the studies about letting girls segregate in the schools for 5th, 6th, 7th grade, the kind of stuff Sally Ride is doing–I think the question is you’ve got to reach people at early ages, high motivational. It’s not just about the standards. It’s about motivating people at a very early age. It is women, African-Americans, Hispanics and people with disabilities, who make up about 60% of the workforce and are going to be fulfilling just a very small fraction of the number of jobs. That’s the unrealized talent pool for science and tech innovation in our own country. I don’t think we could do enough to try to reach out. I think it’s got to be early. It’s got to be early. You can’t wait until 10 to 11…I don’t think you can wait until 11th Grade.
Harrison: The issue with H1-B visas is, I mean, I’m in Silicon Valley. Yes, half the engineering graduates or more come from India and China. That’s why we’ve got to hire them. I mean, if you look at the entreprenuers in Silicon Valley, the number of entreprenuers that have come from India is like 25% of the entreprenuers in Silicon Valley. I mean, it’s incredible. I mean, there’s a motivation issue [that's happening here]. We’re not instilling in–women, absolutely–but also in the general population.
Steel: I think you’re being a bit pessimistic. Let me make just one example. The competition for the graduates at the top colleges now–There’s a race to the top by two organizations I’m familiar with: Goldman Sachs and Teach For America. And a lot of [what] schools now teach is “beating Goldman Sachs,” which I have mixed emotions about. I think that the real issue is if we create the right inspirational activities, people will respond. The issue isn’t with the children, The issue is we haven’t created the vehicles by which people can be inspired. There’s a good example [here]. Let’s give it up for Wendy Cobb basically for creating something that’s been the vehicle by which this can be presented [I assume he's talking about the Aspen Institute conference here].
Friedman: What percentage of great scientists when they’re asked why they got into it allude to the fact they were inspired by a great teacher early on?
Turley: One thing I’ll add to this is in India engineers are rock stars. They get a lot of publicity and a lot of celebrations. Here in this country, frankly, Wall Street, hedge funds, and private equity have been the rock stars. And I think we need to do a lot more as a society to celebrate entreprenuership, and to celebrate the engineering and science disciplines.
The session ended here. I think Turley’s point was a good one to end on. Culturally scientists and engineers are not celebrated in the U.S. Maybe they used to be, but as I’ve gone through my career and seen the general attitudes of people I don’t get a sense that we’re looked upon with much admiration. It could be because people feel we’ve broken faith with them. I’m just throwing that one out there. I mean, you can even go back to when you were in school. Were people who studied science and engineering admired among their peers? Generally speaking, absolutely not. You can say that as kids they were just immature. They didn’t see the value in it. Well, kids’ values are a reflection of their parents’ values, at least in part.
In fact, depending on the school you went to, there might’ve even been peer pressure against getting good grades to begin with. Being “cool” could mean not bothering to study, being a slacker, a kind of anti-education attitude.
The point that Turley was making is a significant part of the issue is cultural. Some cultures greatly value education, and parents instill that in their children. Some cultures have a tendency to steer their kids towards certain professions, which they believe will give them a decent or exceptional standard of living. Depending on what community you live in in the U.S., this varies.
When I was in high school there was actually peer pressure to get good grades. That was good for me. It tended to motivate me to try to do better. When I was in junior high a friend of mine went to a different junior high school where there was peer pressure to not get good grades. He was smart, and could get the grades, but to be socially accepted he did badly on tests on purpose, at least for a time. Eventually his mother found out what was going on and set him straight. This goes on all over the U.S. today, and there are plenty of parents who don’t seem to be that attentive to this issue, or if they do it’s countered by “self-esteem” measures that give students A’s for lackluster work.
One of the things that’s going to have to change if we want to compete globally is to somehow stamp out an educational culture that has low expectations of students. This has to come from the parents. That’s all there is to it. Schools can do their part, and government can have a role in that, but if the parents aren’t pushing in the same direction it’s not going to work.
—Mark Miller, http://tekkie.wordpress.com