Experts: Education key to U.S. competitiveness

Science, technology, engineering and math programs need a boost for the country to maintain its edge, panelists say at governors' forum. Photo: An innovation initiative

CUPERTINO, Calif.--Innovation and U.S. competitiveness will suffer if kids don't get a better education, a panel of experts said Tuesday.

In particular, science, technology, engineering and math education in kindergarten through 12th grade needs a boost, according to panelists speaking at an event here that's part of a National Governors Association initiative. K-through-12 education has traditionally been a focus of governors because much of a state's budget is spent there.

"In technology and engineering we're really doing nothing. In math and science we're basically teaching the same things we taught when I was in school and we're teaching it the same way," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who turns 50 this year.

As current chair of the National Governors Association, Napolitano established the "Innovation America" initiative. The goal is to come up with a list of policies and strategies governors across the U.S. can use to enhance the innovative capacity of their states and their ability to compete in this global economy, she said.

Calling for improvements to U.S. education isn't new. Others, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, have made similar pleas to help the U.S. stay competitive.

The Innovation America effort goes beyond lower education. It also aims to establish links with higher education and suggests incentives for entrepreneurship, such as tax credits for early investors and businesses that do research with universities, Napolitano said.

"What is going to keep us competitive and what is going to help us in-source jobs? That is the investment in human capital and that is the investment in innovation," Napolitano said.

The focus from governors is needed as countries including China and India increase their roles in the global marketplace. "The world is shrinking and now we're really competing for people all across the world," said Sean Walsh, special adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

California has attracted smart people from across the globe, but that actually points to shortcomings in the U.S. education system, Walsh said.

"In technology and engineering we're really doing nothing. In math and science we're basically teaching the same things we taught when I was in school and we're teaching it the same way."
--Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano

"We are attracting the best and the brightest from all around the world, but that's making up for the fact that we're not necessarily producing some of the best and the brightest because our education is not up to snuff," he said.

Silicon Valley in particular is at a crossroads, said Dennis Cima, vice president of education and policy at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which is made up of businesses in the area.

"The crisis is really how America maintains its competitive edge and how Silicon Valley maintains its competitive edge...The availability of talent is a real huge issue," he said.

One possible solution to the talent problem is promoting math and science among groups that typically don't pick those subjects, said John Thompson, chief executive at Symantec, which hosted the event.

"Science, technology, engineering and math (education) is such an important issue for our company and our country, more should be done by every single organization to convince young women and minorities to participate and pursue careers in math and science," Thompson said. "It does represent an opportunity for us to expand the talent pool quite rapidly."

Higher education in California is moving to help lower education with qualified teachers. The University of California and the California State University systems have committed to a program that should see 2,500 math and science teachers graduate each year by 2010.

"I have seen whole schools and whole school districts where there has not been a single accredited science and math teacher," said Robert Dynes, president of the University of California.

Governors can make a difference as many innovations happen at the state level, not the federal level, Walsh said, pointing to Schwarzenegger's environmental initiatives as an example. "It is not going to go from the top down, it is going to go from the bottom up," he said.

The Innovation America initiative started in August and ends in July when Napolitano will present her suggestions at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association. The work will continue as a not-for-profit organization after that, she said.

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