"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Real Threat to American Security

There has been no shortage of overheated and alarmist rhetoric in recent years regarding the demise of "rigor" and collapse of science and math learning in schools. These educational shortcomings are purportedly fueling the loss of American preeminence in science and technology and the economic advantages associated with that loss of scientific and technological stature.

The Business Roundtable, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, philanthropists such as Broad and Gates, and the education privatizers who are driven by both ideology and dollars, have embarked, then, upon a new crusade of blame-the-schools "education reform." The success of these reforms would be measured in how well schools are turned into training camps for instilling the corporate cultural values of competition and self-aggrandizement, rather than creating caring (supportive and challenging) communities where children learn American political values, their own histories, and the core values of being humans with a wide range of aspirations, abilities, and dreams for the future.

Besides turning education into a consummable commodity that produces a warehousable resource we now know as human capital, these reforms have also produced a very effective smokescreen that conceals a serious crack in the foundational belief that crony capitalism and manipulated markets are the keys to keeping America strong. For while the BR and the CC and the moneyed, meddling philanthropists have made great strides toward destroying public education, undermining the profession of teaching, and marginalizing large chunks of knowledge such as the arts, humanities, and vocational subjects, the real reasons for the potential loss of scientific and technological preeminence have remained hidden and unaddressed, as noted in a new report by the National Academies of Science.

The real threat to American scientific and techological preeminence, it seems, is not that school children are refusing the force-feeding of trigonometry or that their teachers have looked beyond their pacing guides and into the eyes of their students, but rather the threat appears to be clearly linked with the starvation diet of basic research and the insidious elimination of the educational imagination that, indeed, fuels such research. This is the educational imagination grounded in the "what if," and it breeds the curiosity that produces the basic research and basic questioning that obviously lacks a connection to a forseeable gadget that can be overpriced and mass marketed as the symbol of status for the majority of consumers who cannot otherwise afford it.

These are core issues beyond the expertise of Wharton MBAs or even Harvard dropouts, not to mention the burgeoning population of 21-Century education reformer versions of George Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, now lit with the renewed fire of small-minded boosterism, home-grown bigotry, and an all-consuming greed.

Here is a clip of a research study summary from Ars Technica:

. . . . Stagnating research

The total grant money dedicated to the field has barely outpaced normal inflation over the last decade, but lab costs (especially salaries of students and fellows) have shot up at a much faster rate: grant buying power has declined by 15 percent as a result. Because of this, researchers are applying for more grants, sending the competition up and success rates down: overall funding rates have dropped from 38 percent to 22 percent. New investigators, who are generally thought to take more aggressive and innovative approaches, are faring even worse as their success rates have dropped by more than half and now stand at only 12 percent.

The net result is that the academic community is now devoting far more of its time to writing grants, a shift that has come at the expense of directing and publishing research. In the past, academics have had an escape route from the pressures to retain funding: the "blue sky" research labs run by major companies, such as AT&T's Bell Labs. But the report refers to these institutions as "once great," since recent years have seen them closed, sold off piecemeal, or refocused on product development.

Combined, these changes have caused US research output to shrink in comparison to the rest of the world. Based on publications in Physical Reviews B and E, the US contribution to papers has remained flat over the last decade, while papers originating from other countries have nearly doubled. The report predicts that this reduced output will ultimately exact a price on the American economy.

Money for new directions

Many of their recommendations for correcting the situation are similar to the proposed solutions for other fields of research. Grant success rates should be brought up to the neighborhood of 30 percent, and the funding amounts need to be adjusted to compensate for the fact that academic researchers are now paid semi-reasonable wages. Grants should be pushed towards small research groups, as these are the major source of innovations. More minorities and women should be brought into the field, and career flexibility needs to be provided so that researchers do not have to choose between career and family needs as often.

There are three recommendations that stand out as being distinct from those proposed for other fields. Two suggest restructuring the way grant money is currently allocated. The National Science Foundation currently lumps interdisciplinary studies and educational programs in with other grants, where they are evaluated by people who may not have an appropriate background to judge them. The report recommends that the NSF recruit expertise across fields (such as the physics/biology overlap) specifically to provide a decent evaluation of grant proposals.

It also suggests an emphasis on education and outreach programs, which are essential to increasing public understanding of science and attracting a new generation of researchers. These programs need to be targeted to both college and K-12 education, and the funding for them needs to be separated from general research funds. Evaluations of education grants need to be separated as well, as research scientists are often incapable of properly evaluating them.

But the most radical proposal is that the equivalent of the great industrial labs needs to be reestablished. It suggests that all interested parties, ranging from industry through the Department of Defense and Energy to the academic world, should meet and determine what's needed to recreate the research environment they once fostered. Unfortunately, beyond calling for these discussions, the report is remarkably vague about how to resuscitate these now moribund labs. . . .

On the face of it, it would seem there is plenty for the business community to do to put their own houses in order, before they treat themselves to the luxury of meddling in the affairs of instititions for which businessmen have no preparation or experience.

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