Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Conversation with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

We interrupt our regularly scheduled summer vacation to bring you this blog.

What am I saying? Summer officially got over on Labor Day. And what better way to end it than a chat with Arne Duncan?

Frankly, it didn't "just happen". Back in May, Secretary Duncan held an electronic town hall asking for inputs from people all over the country on his proposal to raise the education standards. I wrote a response (see below), along with hundreds of others. I did not expect much to happen as a result, and promptly forgot about it. A couple of months later, I got an email from his press office saying that Secretary Duncan read my comment, and would like to follow up with a phone call. The call was scheduled for this morning, and happened right on schedule - at 5:30 am Pacific Time. In the call, Secretary Duncan asked me when I sensed something was amiss with our public education, and how I got involved in the issues. I summarized what I had found (already in my previous blogs, I think), what some business leaders have said already, and finally, what is happening locally. He also mentioned he believed in more focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and that he believed math and science teachers need to be paid more. I gave him a brief summary of the local non profit nConnect, and what they are trying to do to promote STEM in local schools. He mentioned that more funding is going to be made available to help achieve his goals, and finally encouraged me to "keep pushing, and don't stop". I thought it was a nice, personal touch. Everything he mentioned resonated with what we are trying to accomplish in our schools, but somehow never get to. Even though it lasted only a few minutes, I felt a lot was communicated by both.

Coincidentally, today also happens to be the day that President Obama speaks to the K-12 students of the nation. His address got some flak from some even before it was given. I read the text of the speech, and could not figure out what the controversy was about. All I saw was emphasis on good old fashioned American values, and encouragement to study more, try harder, and stay in school. I encourage all students to watch the address.

My comment on Secretary Duncan's electronic town hall is attached below:
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Dear Secretary Duncan:

Thank you for soliciting inputs on what I consider one of the most important issues that this administration faces. Most of the inputs so far appear to be from those close to the education system. I am a first generation immigrant, worked briefly as a university faculty, and spent my entire career as a high tech researcher/manager for a high tech company, before retiring early. Having spent equal time in India and the US, I believe I can bring a fresh perspective to this thread, starting with the following three reasons:

First, I think the US stands in the most critical point in its history, when decisions made can affect the future generations for decades. From what I gather, the total debt (public+private+individual) currently stands at above $50 trillion. Projected unfunded obligations in social security and medicare, plus growth in federal debt, also are projected to be over $50 trillion. These are both over three times our GDP. Never before in our history have we faced such a challenge, not even during the great depression. But it is our children who will be stuck paying the bill for this decades long party. It is our solemn duty to equip them with the best education on earth before they face a life vastly more perilous than what their parents and grandparents did.

Secondly, we are no longer the leading nation when it comes to getting children ready for what lies ahead in the 21st century. Those in the education establishment may argue otherwise, but I have had to hire, train and supervise multi national employees for over two decades. I have seen how other nations prepare their workers better in science and technology. Many multi national high tech companies have already moved their R&D centers off shore, where most of the intellectual property is developed, and all the high paying R&D jobs with them. As far as I am concerned, we have a lot of catching up to do here.

Third, I think we are on the wrong end of demographics when it comes to training young graduates into high paying jobs. We are an aging nation. Growth through immigration is coming from the bottom end of the pay range. So, in my assessment, each student in the pipeline now will have to carry a larger burden compared to the previous generation.

So, do I think we need to improve our standards? You bet. In my mind, it is not a matter of choice any more. In my humble opinion, here are some things I would do:

1. I would start with the most stringent worldwide standards to be our national standards to begin with, and then challenge the states to match them. I feel this is a necessary first step.

2. High standards will be meaningless if the same system of training, evaluating and rewarding our teachers continues. The best performing nations choose their best to go into teaching, and then give them rigorous training to do their jobs. The same cannot be said about us.

3. Parents and community leaders need to espouse academic achievement as a priority over extra curricular activities. Too many dollars today get spent on things that have no effect on student achievement, and the popular culture seems to encourage it. You and your boss have done an admirable job of elevating this issue and bringing it to the public limelight. Please continue to hammer the message in.

4. We need the equivalent of a national emergency action to pull out all stops on STEM education. Math and science have suffered greatly in what you refer to as “the race to the bottom”. What passes for some math curricula today will be considered trash in just about any other nation today. Many teachers who teach elementary or middle schools do not have degrees in math and science. Our ability to generate new intellectual property will continue to be hammered due to lack of proper math and science education, especially in early grades.

Once again, thanks for soliciting our collective inputs.

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