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The conventional wisdom among business leaders and politicians is that vast hordes of highly trained Chinese engineering students are poised to descend, Khan-like, upon the plains of the global labor market, leaving the ruins of the American economy in their wake.
Ominous reports from high-profile studies and commissions have prompted calls for a new emphasis on mathematics and science from the Bush administration, the US Chamber of Commerce, and others. Yet in the rush to act on this latest surge of concern about our global position in science and engineering, there's a real danger our leaders will misread the problem and mishandle the solution.
America has been down this road before, first with the Russians and, more recently, the Japanese. And though gloomy predictions in the 1950s and the 1980s never came to pass, that does not mean the problem should be ignored. America faces a growing competitive challenge from countries such as India and China, which are quickly improving their educational systems, attracting more investment, and becoming hotbeds of innovation.
Yet the nature of the challenge is still not well understood. Many of the statistics commonly used to describe the new wave of Asian engineers are of dubious or nonexistent origin. The real numbers are likely much less than that. For instance, a recent study from Duke University found that many new Chinese "engineers" are actually technicians, working in fields such as automobile and HVAC repair.
Most of the solutions being trotted out are similarly suspect. For the most part, the solutions to this "new challenge" are a familiar mix of scholarships and student loan-forgiveness programs. Even the Bush administration's sensible emphasis on helping high school students take more advanced courses is a small scale add-on rather than a substantial assault on the issue. Unfortunately, all these ideas ignore the fact that scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are disproportionately white, male, and from economically advantaged backgrounds.
Unless we believe that a substantial number of such students are failing to choose science careers for want of proper inducements, many of the scarce resources devoted to new scholarship programs may well reward people of means for choices they would have made anyway. In fact, the richest untapped source of future talent will likely be found in our underserved cities and among low-income and minority students who are failing to receive a good education in our public schools. A college scholarship is worthless unless you graduate from high school, but only about half of America's minority students even finish high school on time.
Likewise, few students can handle college-level science without first completing a high-quality secondary math and science curriculum, but many disadvantaged students attend high schools that don't even offer those classes or where the courses are often taught by teachers who do not know the material themselves. Consequently, minority students who do reach 12th-grade lag behind their white peers by four grade levels, on average, on national tests of reading and math.
As a result, the best long-run strategy for boosting America's global economic standing isn't giving more students a reason to choose careers in science. It's giving more students the ability to choose careers in science. Without expanding the pool of well-prepared students who can take advantage of them, no amount of scholarships will make a difference.
For the business leaders calling this latest alarm, that means less emphasis on photo opportunities and quick fixes and more time with rolled-up sleeves in state capitals. Calling for more math and science graduates and offering scholarships is easy; engaging on the tough policy questions about finance, human capital, and governance in our elementary and secondary schools that must be addressed to improve student learning and help clear the way for more scientists and engineers is much harder. To date, with a few noteworthy exceptions, such heavy and politically contentious lifting is something the business community has mostly eschewed.
The new challenges of globalization are real, and America's past success in meeting competitive threats doesn't guarantee similar success in the future. But we'll need more than anecdotes and statistics to guide us. And we'll need newer, better ideas to help the disadvantaged students who are most vulnerable to the turmoil that global competition will create. They may be our best source of new talent to meet this challenge.