Perspective, not funding or focus, may be what education lacks

Is learning from the past the key to the future, as philosopher Georges Santayana believed? A former Lockheed-Martin CEO thinks so.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Norm Augustine, an IEEE Fellow who served as Lockheed-Martin's CEO  from 1996 to 1997, said that the problem with US education is not a lack of focus on science and engineering, or even economics, but on history and communication skills. 

Taking aim at STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is a well-worn road for industry executives and gets fairly big headlines.

Earlier this past year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, took a minute from a fairly long speech in the UK to slam the UK education system for not encouraging science and math students .  As a result, most every member of the media in the UK and many in the US ignored 99 percent of Schmidt's text and focused on those four paragraphs out of 200  What was missed almost entirely in the coverage was the real focus of the speech: fostering innovation to boost the world economy. Even Augustine had piled on previously in a January 2011 Forbes Magazine piece blaming the lack of spending on science and technology education, as well as a lack of spending on energy technology, as reasons for the seeming dearth of innovation in the US. He claimed that the West spends more on potato chips than on energy research. According to recent data and the, however, Augustine's later position might have more validity.

When discussions arise about the state of education the focus is always on the current cuts in education from an individual level - local, state and federal, but the discussions rarely look at the whole. And that "whole" paints a very different picture.

According to UNESCO, total education spending worldwide now exceeds $7 trillion, just for 2011 alone. Total public spending on education in the United States is 24 percent of that total for 4 percent of all students in the world from elementary to graduate school – close to $2 trillion this year. Even with the cuts in the past decade, this total is greater than the totals of any other country in the world.  In fact, the US spends more than the next five countries combined.  The Institute for Energy Research estimates that The US also spends 7 times more on alternative energy technology than on fossil fuel, according to the Energy Institute of America, and 70 percent of what is spent on alternative energy is in the form of direct grants, while 90 percent of the spending on oil is in the form of loans that are repaid. (By the way, the US spends $6 billion a year on potato chips and $70 billion on alternative energy research.)

So it's not a lack of money spent on education or innovation.  Augustine points out that the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that scores on STEM subjects (sciences, technology, engineering and math) for US high school students scores, while low according world standards, are not the students’ lowest scores.  Surprisingly enough, their best subject is Economics.  Their worst score is in History.

"A failing grade in history suggests that students are not only failing to comprehend our nation's story and that of our world, but also failing to develop skills that are crucial to employment across sectors," he wrote. "Having traveled in 109 countries in this global economy, I have developed a considerable appreciation for the importance of knowing a country's history and politics."

What seems clear is that the West is not getting what it pays for in education.  That is not a reason to reduce funding, but it is a good reason to reexamine the educational priorities.

Was Google Chief wrong about the quality of UK school curriculum?  Find out at: www.element14.com

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