Monday, December 6, 2010

Another Sputnik moment . . .

On November 29th I blogged about Energy Secretary Chu’s comment of this being a “Sputnik Moment” for our country related to China’s work on renewable energy. Now, today I read about President Obama’s speech where he says that we are facing a “Sputnik moment” related to our nation falling behind others in the future.

But as it stands right now, the hard truth is this: In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That's just the truth. And when -- if you hear a politician say it’s not, they’re not paying attention. In a generation we have fallen from 1st place to 9th place in the proportion of young people with college degrees. When it comes to high school graduation rates, we’re ranked 18th out of 24 industrialized nations -- 18th. We’re 27th in the proportion of science and engineering degrees we hand out. We lag behind other nations in the quality of our math and science education.

I wonder if this Sputnik moment thing is something that we will be hearing about from other federal agencies. Maybe it’s a planned strategy or maybe the President read about Secretary Hu’s comments. In either case, how many of these fundamental shifts in doing business can we afford at one time given the current economic situation? I applaud his comments about the need for more spending, but do not agree that the reforms and initiatives from the education department are necessarily going to achieve his goal.

We’re reforming K-12 education –- not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Instead of indiscriminately pouring money into a system that’s not working, we’re challenging schools and states to compete with each other –- to see who can come up with reforms that raise standards, and recruit and retain good teachers, raise student achievement, especially in math and science. We call it Race to the Top -- (applause) -- where you get more funding if you show more results -- because part of the argument here is, is that if we’re going to have a government that's smart and helping people compete in this new global economy, then we’ve got to spend our money wisely. And that means we want to invest in things that are working, not in things that aren’t working just because that's how things have always been done.

Race to the Top was not about more funding if you show results. It was about what states lined up the best to meet the parameters established by the federal education department. It was about forming partnerships with groups like the Gate’s Foundation for grant writing and other support purposes. The RttT winners haven’t shown better results they simply achieved the highest scores on the rubric designed to separate winners from losers. Yes, competition is alive and gathering more momentum in the department and being supported by the President given the above comments. Over time I hope that the “reforms” embedded in the winning proposals prove effective so that we can learn from them. I remain skeptical and we don’t have the time to wait before moving forward without the support of additional funding.

In his speech the President also said that we shouldn’t be cutting funding to education and innovation.

So we can’t stop making those investments. The best antidote to a growing deficit, by the way, is a growing economy. To borrow an analogy, cutting the deficit by cutting investments in areas like education, areas like innovation -- that's like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine. It’s not a good idea. There may be some things you need to get rid of, but you got to keep the engine.

That’s why even as we scour the budget for cuts and savings in the months ahead, I will continue to fight for those investments that will help America win the race for the jobs and industries of the future -– and that means investments in education and innovation and infrastructure. I will be fighting for that.

I for one do not want to see any cuts to federal support for public schools so calling for more just might be an effective strategy in at least keeping it at current levels. Given the changed makeup of the House and Senate, maintaining current levels would be a victory as I don’t believe that many of the new members are going to be supportive of “new” money going to public education.

I wonder how the talks on ESEA and replacing NCLB are progressing. Does anyone know or care?

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