Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Good sense from a CEO!

Must-read article. SAS's chief executive has a lot to say about the U.S. education system. When many CEOs deserve an overdue pilloring, Goodnight is an outlier when it comes to education.
The way Goodnight sees things, the nation's declining high school graduation rate (now estimated at around 70%) and declining proficiency in math and science (U.S. 15-year-olds ranked in the bottom half of industrialized countries in the most recent OECD tests) are just two indicators of the creeping decline of our global competitiveness. High school dropouts have an 8% unemployment rate, make $1 million less over the course of their careers than college grads, and account for 70% of the prison population, at least in SAS's home state of North Carolina. "These kids are doomed to failure pretty much the rest of their lives," Goodnight said in an interview with me last week.

In 1957, he noted, the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik was the wake-up call the United States needed to get its act together on funding education and technology programs, the genesis of NASA, and later Silicon Valley and broader economic expansion. "We don't have a warning like that anymore," he said. "We're slowly, slowly losing our competitiveness as a country."

So what's the solution? Goodnight, who doesn't mince words, also resists pat answers. Despite the triumphs of NASA, big government programs tend to become moribund bureaucracies. In Goodnight's view, it boils down to getting more kids to excel beyond high school, especially in math and the sciences, and allowing the brightest technical minds from abroad to enter and stay in this country.

On the former front, Goodnight sees more potential for education reform and progress on the state and local levels, where SAS has had success, than at the federal level. There, he argues, politicians care more about primping for the party than advancing legislation that serves the national interest (witness last week's partisan squabbling on the House floor over the $700 billion bailout package).

On the latter front, Goodnight has no patience with policy makers and other interests who oppose bringing more smart, talented people into the United States. He said 60% of technical doctorates now awarded in the United States go to foreign nationals, many of whom are told after graduation that they can go innovate elsewhere. Keeping them here isn't just a matter of economic competitiveness: How secure will this country be, Goodnight asked rhetorically, when we have to buy missile and satellite parts from China, where they'll not only be manufactured but also designed should current demographic trends persist?
Apparently the increase in federal dollars and the establishment of a federal Department of Education hasn't done wonders for American education. We'll probably continue down the same insane path of spending more dollars for poor results, particularly if the teachers unions are in charge.

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