FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Senate Committee Holds Hearing on American Competitiveness and Public Education

Aline D. McNaull
Number 44 - March 26, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“While globalization and technology have dramatically increased the skills and qualifications required to succeed today, our schools are largely geared towards the assumptions of a 20th-century workplace.“ – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)

“The Federal government does have a role to play in improving the education of our nation’s children through programs supported under the Head Start Act, the Elementary and Secondary Act, Perkins Career [Vocational] and Technical Education Act, and the Higher Education Act.” – Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY)

The March 8, 2012 hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee opened with expressions of bi-partisan concern regarding the importance of improving the number of high school graduates who reach, and graduate from, an undergraduate institution.  Both Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY) cited alarming statistics in their opening statements to emphasize the critical urgency of this issue, including that only 10 percent of poor students graduate from college and that America ranks 10th in the proportion of young people with a college degree.   

Jennifer Mann, Vice President of Human Resources at the SAS Institute, highlighted the difficulty of finding qualified employees for the technical market.  She indicated that a lack of preparation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) was a common barrier for applicants who wish to find jobs in technical fields.  She also summarized education programs, organized by SAS, which introduce K-12 teachers and students to computer programming to prepare them to enter the workforce. 

Charles Kolb, President of the Committee for Economic Development, summarized the accountability movement in US K-12 education. He cited the report “A Nation at Risk,” the No Child Left Behind Act, and President Obama’s “Race to the Top” challenge to demonstrate bi-partisan efforts to address education.  He also summarized problems in American post-secondary education which he stated “pretty much got a pass” over the last 30 years:

Until fairly recently, however, America’s postsecondary education sector has managed to avoid the types of accountability questions that have characterized K-12 education policy discussions. For much of the last 30 years, postsecondary education’s public policy debates have primarily concerned important questions relating to access and financing but relatively few questions about ‘access to what?’ -- about the quality of that American postsecondary-education experience and what our young people should know and be able to do as a result of their postsecondary-education experience.”

Kolb suggested that there are three factors driving this new wave of accountability: cost, competition, and technology.  “Cost is driving questions that weren’t asked before,” he explained.  Because higher education has become very expensive, there are now more discussions regarding the quality of the education.  He described that competition in education is a global issue, and that the US is now competing with growing economies around the globe.  Technology is, as he noted, “going to upend the existing business model and change the focus” in education.  He cited an approach to secondary education found at MIT and Stanford, a new business model of open courseware, which has enabled professors to teach courses such as one that was offered to 160,000 students in 90 countries and translated in 44 languages. 

Eric Hanushek, Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, emphasized that education problems are present in every state, and that it is not just a few states dragging down student performance in the US.  He said Massachusetts, considered the state to have the best education system, ranks behind 16 other countries in student performance.  An area of improvement he advocated for was teacher quality. 

Richard Murnane, Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, spoke to the correlation between household income and education.  He explained:
“The slowdown in the rate of increase of educational attainments of young Americans, especially those coming from low-income families, places in jeopardy upward socioeconomic mobility in the United States.”

The questions from both sides of the aisle focused on what Americans can do together to fix problems in our education system.  Harkin inquired as to what Americans are missing in the early grades that leads students to fall behind while Enzi was concerned that we are not focused on job-preparedness but rather how to pass tests.  Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) asked whether an increase in instruction time would have a large benefit to students.

Hanushek advocated for a pay for performance assessment of teachers and Mann offered insight into how her company shows students real-world applications in math and science.  Mann suggested that organizations can help improve access to technology in the classroom.  Murnane described how wealthy parents are able to pay for tutors and supplemental education but that low-income families do not have that option. 

Murnane also suggested that “we’ve seen increasing segregation by economic status, not race, by economic status in our schools,” and suggested how this scenario allows those low-income students to fall further behind.   Kolb advocated for changing the amount of time students spend on task learning, both inside and outside the classroom. 

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics