The Education Crisis in America

12/02/2009 18:19
Space Watch
    Corporate Members | Board of Directors | Contacts | Archive December 2009 | Vol. 8 | No. 12   

Déjà Vu All Over Again

The Education Crisis in America

Our members know, and thousands of graduates of our education programs can attest, there is no more important mission area for the Space Foundation than education.

The past few years have seen tremendous growth in our programs, from the expansion of our graduate institute programs, to the creation of space-specialist masters degree programs, Space Across the Curriculum programs, and in-school student programs to the founding, this year, of our Space Foundation Discovery Institute on the grounds of the Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy. [Note: To see everything the Space Foundation does to support education, go to]

We’re blessed with an incredible team of Superteachers. They’re in great demand. And in many ways, their work is the most important thing that we do.

Very recently there has been a flurry of excited response to, and media coverage of, new proposals from the White House to re-invent and re-energize U.S. K-12 education. If the proposals are real, and the money flows to truly innovative and effective programs, no organization will be more excited than ours.

But you’ll excuse my being just a bit cynical on the eve of the holiday season.

The urgent need for national education reform is something we’ve been blowing the whistle on for years. And, we are not the only ones. But, typically, the wind for blowing that whistle seems to run out shortly after the press releases hit the street. Will it be different this time? Or is it just déjà vu?

Excerpted from my 2002 testimony to the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry:

The biggest crisis facing this industry is the shallow pool of technically skilled domestic college graduates from which to recruit. This is not just an aerospace crisis. It is a true national crisis. Every other high-tech industry in the country is confronted by it. And it is driven not by aerospace policy, but by education policy.

The U.S. education system is producing fewer and fewer college graduates with the math, science, and technical skills required for the aerospace and space industry, or for that matter, for many other high-tech industries. Fewer and fewer students are pursuing technical studies while an ever-larger segment of the economy demands these skills. Some statistics, courtesy of the National Science Foundation:

From 1993 to 1998, graduate-level enrollment in science and engineering programs in the United States dropped from 435,869 students to 404,903. [NOTE: The Space Report 2009: The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity reported that in 2004, there were 64,700 bachelor's degrees in engineering awarded in the United States, compared with 440,000 equivalent degrees awarded in China that year.]

While total enrollment was declining, the percentage of foreign, non-U.S. citizen students within the total enrollment was increasing. Non-U.S. citizens enrolled in U.S. science and engineering programs in 1993 was less than 25 percent, and in 1999, it was more than 25 percent. American universities are training an increasing number of foreign competitors and a decreasing number of home-grown students.

The number of students pursuing graduate degrees in science and engineering with special applicability to the space and aerospace community is quite small and declining:

  • In Aerospace Engineering, there were only 3,940 enrolled graduate students in the country in 1993; that number dropped to 3,137 by 1998.
  • In Mechanical Engineering, there were 18,477 enrolled graduate students in 1993, declining to just 14,696 by 1998.
  • In Electrical Engineering, there were 35,290 enrolled graduate students in 1993, down to 31,129 in 1998.
  • Despite the perception that the U.S. is a burgeoning powerhouse in information technology, enrollment in graduate-level computer engineering studies has been in steady decline since 1985.

This fundamental problem of declining supply and increasing demand has many dimensions. One of particular concern and great familiarity to the Space Foundation is the K-12 pipeline. These trends have great meaning. Inasmuch as the K-12 system acts as the "supplier" for colleges and universities, it is fair to characterize our current dilemma at the university level as "garbage in, garbage out."

Much of the problem in K-12 education stems from poor pay and work conditions for teachers, and how that impacts the average quality of teacher and thereby the overall quality of education in our public schools. A teacher acquaintance who recently left education for a career change summed it up nicely: "I have a masters degree and ten years professional experience, and I’m still making less than $30,000 a year. Would you do this?"

The issue of underpaid, overworked, and unqualified teachers in our education system has received a great deal of attention over the years. Education reform in the United States is a huge issue and merits a top-level congressional commission of its own. In fact, such a look was taken, specific to math and science education, by a special commission led by former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn. The conclusions of the Glenn Commission remain every bit as relevant today as when they were issued two years ago. To quote from its report:

The Glenn Commission found that U.S. high school students are "devastatingly far from" the national goal of being first in the world in science and math, and that "the basic teaching style in too many mathematics and science classes today remains essentially what it was two generations ago."

In addition to better teacher recruitment and preparation, and more support, planning time, and professional development opportunities for in-service teachers, the report places major emphasis on paying teachers a competitive, merit-based salary. "One powerful litmus test of how serious we are about providing high-quality [teaching]," it notes, "is what we are willing to pay good mathematics and science teachers."

The report cites three goals, and then provides a series of specific strategies, targeted at various sectors, to achieve each goal. It estimates that the strategies proposed will cost over $5 billion annually.

  • GOAL 1: "Establish an ongoing system to improve the quality of mathematics and science teaching in grades K-12." To achieve this goal, states must assess teachers' needs; establish summer institutes for teacher professional development; set up local inquiry groups for teachers to work together and share ideas; train facilitators for the institutes and inquiry groups; make a dedicated Internet portal available to teachers; establish a non-governmental council coordinate and assess these efforts; and states and local districts should implement reward and incentive programs for good teaching.
  • GOAL 2:"Increase significantly the number of mathematics and science teachers and improve the quality of their preparation." The report recommends identifying exemplary models of teacher preparation programs; developing a strategy to attract more qualified candidates to teaching; and creating 15 mathematics and science teaching academies by consortia of existing institutions.
  • GOAL 3: "Improve the working environment and make the teaching profession more attractive for K-12 mathematics and science teachers." Recommendations include induction programs to acclimate new teachers and set up mentoring relationships; district/business partnerships to provide materials, equipment, and other resources; incentives, rewards, and recognition for deserving teachers; and improved salaries for all teachers, especially those in science and math.

While the Glenn Commission focused on math and science, roughly the same conclusions can be drawn for virtually every area of instruction in public schools. Clearly the reform of the entire U.S. K-12 public education system is beyond the scope of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. However, it would seem appropriate for the Commission to identify this issue as one of critical importance to the nation, and to make some inputs to Congress and the President about why and how it must be solved.

The significant, unintended negative impact of politically mandated testing schemes that have been implemented across the country must be addressed. The genesis of these new tests is laudable — a desire for greater accountability from the schools for student performance. The unfortunate consequence, however, has been a regressive paradigm shift in education; our schools are no longer responsible for "educating" our students, but rather are now responsible for drilling students in a restricted data set to enable them to pass a specific examination. Especially unfortunate for the space and aerospace industry is the fact that math and science education is becoming a casualty as entire school systems and states focus on point testing for other skills.

The crisis in our schools is of strategic national importance. The future of the U.S. aerospace industry is at risk because of it. The Commission is urged to strongly recommend Presidential and Congressional action aimed at meaningful, systemic education reform that emphasizes the development of critical thinking abilities and the inclusion of math, science, and technology as fundamental components to any modern definition of education.

The cultural and financial inability of aerospace companies to compete for college graduates, and the general perception of space and aerospace as a boring, callous, "rust belt" industry, are two issues that go hand in hand. There are three key influences at play here that the Commission should consider in making its recommendation. These are the cultural influences of risk aversion, the paucity of exciting new federal or industrial programs, and the limitations placed upon the contracting community by the restrictive profit margins inherent in the FAR.

While it is true that the entire American culture seems to have become increasingly risk-averse over the years, nowhere is this more fully manifested than in the aerospace and space industries — especially since the Challenger accident. This attitude manifests itself in a space and aerospace culture that does everything it can to make exciting projects seem dull, mundane, boring — in short, risk-free.

The aerospace life, which in the 50’s and 60’s was characterized by test pilots and engineers experiencing life by the seat of their pants, is seen today as a life of cubicles and not much that is particularly exciting or interesting. Government and industry must find ways to accept higher levels of risk in programs. With all that needs to be accomplished in the next 20 to 50 years, aerospace and space ought to be the most thrilling and compelling industries in the nation. If we wish to attract the best and brightest young minds to this industry, we need to embrace risk and make this business as thrilling as we reasonably can.

The paucity of exciting government programs plays an important role, for only government can accept certain kinds of risk or fund certain kinds of developments. While correlation does not prove causation, the ebb and flow of our college-aged population into and out of engineering and science degree programs tracks interestingly over time. During the heyday of Apollo, enrollment in science and engineering studies increased. When Apollo 17 brought the program to a close, enrollment declined. During the development and test of the space shuttle, enrollment again increased. After the shuttle moved from development and test to routine operations, enrollment again declined.

Is it too much to expect that we would see a dramatic increase in engineering and science enrollments (especially in the aerospace disciplines) if the U.S. were to embark on a big, dramatic, exciting new space program?

While there would be many reasons offered to not launch a large and costly new space program — reasons of practicality, frugality, and political correctness — there are likewise many reasons to recommend such a dramatic step. The audacity and daring of programs like the X-15, Apollo, and space shuttle make them fundamentally American. The notion, so manifest in such programs, that only Americans can do such things, makes them exciting. The bold and the difficult awakens the dreamer and the pioneer in us all, and stimulates the interest in engineering and science that are so crucial to developing the work force of the future.

The View from Here is that, a decade after the Glenn Commission and eight years after the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, not much has fundamentally changed. (The lamentations, in the interim, of the “Gathering Storm Commission,” and others, have provided more wind for our whistles, but not much in the way of new political resolve.) Unless the latest calls for education reform can become something more than press-release-of-the-week – for example, integrated with national security, aerospace policy, and industrial base policy - the View from Here is that it’s all just Déjà Vu All Over Again.

Elliot Holokauahi Pulham
Chief Executive Officer
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