Despite being delayed because of the emphasis on terrorism-related legislation, education remains on the list of priorities that both parties and the White House want to address before Congress goes home this session. Prior to the terrorist attacks, elementary and secondary education reform was President Bush’s top domestic priority and may likely be the only part of his previous agenda that passes before Congress adjourns for the year.
The House and the Senate passed different versions of education reform in the spring and summer. Negotiations between Democratic and Republican conferees and the White House have reached agreement on about 75% of the language to be included in a compromise version of an education reform bill at press time. But some of the most contentious items, including key differences around accountability systems based on adequate yearly progress for all students, comparability of tests between schools and school districts within a state, use of benchmarks for the quality of state assessments, and the use of student achievement data for public disclosure of results by school and for diagnostic purposes to improve educational decision making remain unresolved.
While the final answer to these negotiations are incredibly important, the issues reflect a new consensus on the broader themes of reform and the needs of our children and our economy. There also needs to be a consensus built that our economy desperately requires more Americans with technical bachelors and graduate degrees.
Recent economic studies have shown that technological progress has accounted for more than half of America’s economic growth in the post-war period. Correspondingly, a workforce highly trained in science, mathematics, engineering and technology is fundamental to our nation’s future prosperity and to our ability to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace.
Many economists and high-tech industry leaders are concerned that America will not be prepared to meet the challenge in the years ahead, citing a widening talent gap. Recent job studies predict that job requiring technical skills will grow by 51% over the next decade. Yet the number of engineering undergraduates has dropped 21%, and 32% for math and computer science students.
Over the last decade much of this short fall was filled by foreign workers. In fact, the demand was so high that it required a hard fought battle in Congress to increase the number of H-1B visas. Both industry leaders and policymakers acknowledged this was only a short-term solution and that we must expand the pool of qualified domestic workers. Indeed, to reverse the declining numbers it is necessary to both reform the elementary and secondary school system and reward institutions of higher learning to increase the number of students obtaining degrees in the hard sciences. Congress is in the final stages of negotiations on the former and the latter has just been introduced.
The recently proposed Tech Talent bill will reverse the declining numbers of graduates in hard sciences by establishing a competitive grant program at the National Science Foundation to reward colleges, universities and community colleges that pledge to increase the number of U.S. citizens receiving degrees in science, mathematics, engineering or technology. Senators Lieberman (D-Conn.), Bond (R-Mo.), Mikulski (D-Md.), and Frist (R-Tenn.) have just introduced this Senate version of this bill; the House version was dropped by Representatives Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Larson (D-Conn.)
The demonstration grant program established by the Tech Talent bill will provide new incentives for institutions of higher learning to increase the number of graduates with bachelor and associate degrees. The bill also will encourage mentoring, bridge programs from secondary to postsecondary education and new approaches for traditionally underrepresented groups to earn degrees in these disciplines. By targeting rewards to degree-granting institutions we hope to spur changes in behavior of both the students and the institutions. Program specifications are left to the institution to encourage creativity and focus on results.
We’re at an especially critical moment in the national effort to reform K-12 education. Landmark bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have passed both chambers of Congress. The framework for an accountability-driven public education system that gives all students access to an education that will enable them to reach their full potential is close to being signed into law. But even with this progress American businesses will face in the short to medium term a challenge to find sufficient numbers of professionals with proficiency in these key disciplines. The number of students graduating with degrees in these fields has not only failed to keep pace with an ever-increasing demand, but has actually declined. It is, therefore, critical that the Congress and the White House support the passage of the Tech Talent legislation.
Craig C. Taylor is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Venture Capital Association and is the Chair of NVCA Education Committee. He also serves on the Board of Advisors of the MIT/Stanford Venture Laboratory and the Stanford Office of Technology Licensing GAP Fund.