- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

The endless stories about the decline of American technical education sometimes remind me of how the world is running out of oil.

Practically forever, oil has been about to run out. Intelligent people of great knowledge have said so. We are always on the brink. And yet it hasn’t happened. Maybe it will, but it hasn’t.

So with technical education. Study after test after poll show that American high-school students rank 16th of 18 countries in math, that scientific literacy is declining, that students study little science in high school. These stories have appeared regularly for decades.

Yet American scientists monotonously do very well in the Nobel prizes. American graduate schools in science and engineering are usually rated as the world’s best. Nobody suggests that American technology ranks 16th of any 18 countries. Why, if education in technical subjects is so dismal, and has been for at least 30 years, do we not see dismal results?

Because technical pre-eminence does not depend on whether most people know anything about the sciences.

Sure, as a general principle it would be nice if everyone knew where Mars is or had a basic grasp of algebra. For technical prowess, it doesn’t matter. The crucial people are the very few with phenomenal intelligence.

It is not polite these days to point out that some people are smarter than others. Yet they are. The people you find doing research at Bell Labs, for example, are off scale, way, way up in the 99th percentile. These we depend on.

The important thing is getting these kids — certainly not me, probably not you — into MIT, CalTech, or Harvard physics. We do pretty well at it. A major reason is standardized tests. If a kid pops 800 math boards or becomes a National Merit Finalist, it is noticed. When I was in high school in the mid-‘60s, a guy I knew became such a finalist. He immediately got recruiting brochures from Harvard, Yale and others.

Of note here is that the behavior of the exceedingly bright is not determined by the average performance of a school. I recently read in the Register, the British site dedicated to computers, that British students were avoiding difficult sciences to take psychology and such.

It would be easy to conclude that England was abandoning the sciences, but the technically brilliant do not avoid hard courses. In fact, for them, there aren’t any hard courses in high school. If nothing else, such students will find college texts and read them because they love the material.

Finally, to judge American education by its average results is misleading. Many countries send only their brightest to universities, whereas we try to send a far broader slice of the population. This inevitably gives the other countries a higher average performance.

At the secondary level, American urban schools tend to be very poor, which pulls down the national averages. Reasons and cures can be debated, but the fact cannot, being reported annually in the press. Our schools now deal with large numbers of Hispanic students who are still learning English. Normally new non-English-speaking immigrants do not do as well as the next generation. Finland doesn’t have non-Finnish schoolchildren.

A friend is writing a book on changes in Ivy League education since 1955. He sees declines in quality and content across the board — except in the sciences. Chemistry majors don’t want watered courses, and so don’t accept them.

That’s why we continue to do well despite the horror stories.

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