Low-tech education means outsourced opportunity

The News TribuneSeptember 23, 2012 

Washington has a high-tech economy, low-tech students, and way too many graduates frozen out of high-paying jobs that require skills they never learned.

So says a new report from Change the Equation, a presidential initiative aimed at stepping up STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education in the United States.

Change the Equation, a two-year-old nonprofit led by CEOs, assessed each state’s performance in producing engineers, blue-collar factory technicians, nurses, computer specialists and other professionals in tech-intensive fields.

This kind of survey almost always yields dismal findings, but let’s first hit a couple items of good news.

Since 2003, Washington’s eighth-graders have made some gains in math – modest, but it’s progress. The state has also opted to use the national Common Core standards in math, which promises to provide solid measurements of its students’ performance.

Otherwise, Change the Equation pretty much reaffirms something observers have been saying for years: Washington is not preparing most of its graduates for the 21st-century economy.

A couple of ratios sum it up. In this state, according to the report, there are 2.1 STEM jobs for every one unemployed STEM worker – but only one non-STEM job for every 3.7 unemployed non-STEM worker. Twice as many tech openings as tech-savvy job-seekers; nearly four times as many nontech job-seekers as nontech openings.

This might be excusable if the state of Washington were doing its part to give its youth the intellectual skills they need for the expanding technology sector.

It is not. The state’s voters and lawmakers are too comfortable with a status quo that forces employers to hire talent from out of state while relegating native Washingtonians to low-wage jobs or the unemployment lines.

Professor Edward Lazowska, a University of Washington computer scientist who helped found the UWT’s Institute of Technology, has pointed out that Washington ranks second in the nation in its dependence on workers with scientific skills.

Yet the state also ranks second – behind only California – in importing workers with at least a bachelor’s degree in a science-related field. And Washington is dead last in the rate of students enrolled in science-focused graduate programs.

The problem must be attacked from many angles. Washington’s K-12 establishment must get in step with national education reforms. More math and science teachers need actual degrees in math and science. Standards must be raised. Attitudes that hinder girls, blacks and Latinos must be dumped.

And yes, both the public schools and colleges need more money. To illustrate, the UW’s College of Engineering is turning away half of its qualified applicants, and its distinguished computer science program is turning away three-quarters.

Washington has been outsourcing individual opportunity and giving its own children cheap degrees that often lead nowhere. It doesn’t take a scientist to see the injustice of that.

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