Knowing your child will soon enter the same job market as his classmates, would you be concerned? Would you work with him to improve? Would you begin to question the way math is taught in school?
The United States got such a report card in December, when an international test ranked our 15-year-olds 24th in math out of 29 industrialized nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Science skills of U.S. 15-year-olds fell below the 29-nation average, as well. These scores are a wake-up call to anyone concerned about America's economic future.
Highly skilled workers, trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, are the ones who generate breakthrough innovations that lead to productivity gains,
Consider what has happened over the last generation. In 1975, the United States ranked among the top three industrialized nations for the percentage of 24-year-olds holding bachelor's degrees in sciences and engineering. Since then, 12 countries from Ireland to South Korea have leapfrogged the United States on this score.
Increasingly, America relies on foreign scientists and engineers to make their way to our shores, to the land of opportunity, to work in our labs and contribute to U.S. economic growth. By 2000, close to half of the engineers, computer scientists and life scientists with Ph.D.s earned in the United States were foreign born, according to the National Science Board.
Attracting the world's top talent can be good for our economy. Consider An Wang, who arrived in this country in 1945 as a 25-year-old from Shanghai. He quickly earned a Ph.D. from Harvard before starting a company (Wang Laboratories) that grew into one of the leading technology innovators and job creators of his lifetime.
Now, however, other nations are working feverishly to reverse their brain drain. More foreign graduates are taking their U.S. educations home. Others are choosing to study in countries perceived to be more welcoming in the post-9/11 world.
In spite of the recent recession or fears that engineering jobs are migrating overseas, the long-term job outlook for Americans with strong math and science skills is promising. Research shows that the more mathematics beyond Algebra II a person has, the better chances of landing a job in the top 25 percent of earnings.
The U.S. higher-education system is envied around the world, but we do not have the right K-12 education system in place to supply all the brainpower needed for innovative industries to flourish here in the United States.
One of my colleagues in the technology industry, Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel, explained why in an interview with USA Today last April: "25 percent to 30 percent who teach math or science in K-12 are not educated in the math and science they teach. If you are going to be an engineering major, you are going to need 12 years of solid math. What are the odds of getting 12 consecutive good teachers in a row if 30 percent of them are not qualified?"
To reverse these trends, we need a national commitment to math and science. We in the private sector should expand partnerships to improve K-12 math and science education and encourage more students to pursue technical degrees and careers. The public sector should revamp training, recruitment and retention efforts to raise the effectiveness of math and science teachers. Foundations should make math and science education a higher priority. And parents can do more, too. Every caring parent knows that reading to a young child promotes literacy. But how many parents know how to pass on the fundamental building blocks of math?
America should treat this international report card as a wake-up call to do better. Let's raise expectations. Coming in near-last is not nearly good enough.