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Tech Industry

Can the U.S. still compete?

OK, so winning isn't everything. But 17th place?'s Charles Cooper looks at America's poor showing in an international coding contest.

All together now: "We're No. 17. We're No. 17."

Even before the began, everyone knew the United States had its work cut out for it.

So when the final results came in, Uncle Sam was fortunate to have placed 17th in a tie with the likes of Russian powerhouse Perm State University, perhaps best known as a must stopover for countless '80s glam rockers. Who knows? If we try hard enough, maybe next year the U.S. will be able to catch up to No. 9 Izhevsk State Technical University, way out in the not-so-cosmopolitan reaches of Russia's eastern hinterlands.

All silliness aside, the United States' mediocre showing has rightly become a topic of concern in Silicon Valley, where technology leaders are already fretting about the quality of technical talent in tomorrow's work force. The question is whether this was a harbinger of deeper trouble or simply a one-off item that most folks won't bother with--let alone remember--six months from now.

Why don't tech leaders shine the spotlight on a subject presumably near and dear to folks from coast to coast?

The nation does have a prodigious capacity for changing the subject when the topic turns disagreeable, but I'd like to believe that the self-styled leaders of the technology industry will be compelled to show some grit and get the people in power to pay attention. This isn't something like stock option expensing or H1-B visa rules, where calculations of narrow self-interest motivate tech lobbyists in Washington. This is a lot bigger.

Call it enlightened self-interest, if you will, but the luminaries of the technology business have a golden opportunity to take the lead. Why don't tech leaders shine the spotlight on a subject presumably near and dear to folks from coast to coast and all the red states and blue states in between?

Shortly after the publication of the ACM results, I had a conversation with a chief executive from one of the technology industry's leading companies. This CEO spoke on the condition of anonymity. For this Valley big shot, the primary issue was the education, or more precisely, the undereducation of students in this country. For this CEO, years of falling test scores have forced him to reach an uncomfortable conclusion:

"The truth is that we're mediocre. Other countries are pushing their best and brightest to math and the sciences. And what are we doing? Every parent knows we are not spending money effectively. But I don't know that our country has the stomach yet to fix what needs to be fixed. Can we and should we? Yes, but in a way that has to be successful."

And there's the rub. What's the best way of getting from here to there? People have been talking about education reform in this country ever since the first public high school opened its doors in the early 19th century. But there are increasingly insistent calls to take the bull by the horns. A recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked 15-year-olds from the United States as 24th in math out of 29 industrialized countries! As if that were not bad enough, their science skills were even worse.

With scores like that, is it any wonder that U.S. technology companies are perfectly happy to import freshly minted engineers from places like India and Russia? Cost is another obvious consideration, but don't make the easy mistake of thinking this is only about saving a few dollars on wages.

Some make the argument that on-the-job training is worth more than a doctorate any day. There's not necessarily a correlation between better math and science skills and success as a software developer, they say, adding that entrepreneurial spirit counts for a lot more than proficiency in calculus. Maybe so, but it reminds me of the guys in high school who finished with lousy SAT grades and then groused about the ones who notched near-perfect scores. It's part of the dumbing down of America that we've been witness to for too long.

The astonishing reality is that we've become accustomed to mediocrity as the norm. Little good will come of that.