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The STEM Sell

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #83, 2008.

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Mary Pride


For years, PHS has been warning our readers that our children’s real competition will not be American public school students. It’s kids from all around the world. Now, with the explosion of outsourcing and the Internet, our predictions have come true. So how should we best prepare our children to succeed in the new global economy?

Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics. Put their first letters together, and what have you got? STEM.

When applied to educational policy, STEM initiatives are the newest twist on an old concern going back to Sputnik times.

“The Russians are overtaking us in science!’ That was what political and educational leaders told us after the Sputnik satellite was launched in October, 1957.

Today, the cry we hear is, “The Chinese and Indians are overtaking us in science, technology, engineering, and math! Also, the Singaporeans! And the Taiwanese! And Koreans! And Japanese! Plus Hungarians, Slovenians, Czechs, and Slovaks! Not to mention Bulgarians, Russians, Italians . . .’

Some of these cries are based on studies that compare students’ science and math knowledge, such as the internationally renowned TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) test. Others are based on the growing numbers of students from other countries taking STEM majors in high school, and the growing number of students from those countries earning graduate degrees in STEM subjects from American universities or from universities in their countries.

STEM #1 = Stop Enemy Missiles

Since the Fifties, American math and science education has been motivated, at least in part, by the fear other countries will catch up or surpass us.

When it came to Russia in the 1960s to the present, their innate science and math abilities may well have surpassed ours. But the pitiful amount of money USSR scientists had to work with, compared to what America was willing to shell out for the space race and arms race, ultimately made that irrelevant. An entire society of politically controlled chess players couldn’t whup a cowboy society with deep pockets.

But the tenor of the cries changed, between 1957 and now.

In the Fifties and Sixties, Americans were worried about our lives and freedom. Both were at risk if communism triumphed.

Today, we worry about our livelihoods.

There was little chance in 1957 that Russian scientists, engineers, and mathematicians would come swarming over to take our jobs, or that our jobs would be shipped to Russia. Regardless of how little pay Russian scientists and engineers required compared to Americans, or how lax the pollution standards were in Russia (very lax . . . think Chernobyl), companies just had no ability to outsource tech jobs offshore. Not only was the Iron Curtain in the way, but the cost and unreliability of international calls and the nonexistence of a worldwide Web meant US jobs had to stay in the USA.

The USSR could have rained down nuclear fire on us. But they couldn’t reach us reliably by telephone.

STEM #2 = Save Those Employers Money

Today, government and business both profess extreme concern over what they claim is a massive shortfall of Americans training in the STEM subjects.

Now, this should be great news for American kids who are willing to study hard. Simply go into math, science, or engineering, and a tons of jobs with great salaries await.

Or not.

As most of us are aware, employers have not rushed to raise tech workers’ salaries or even to increase tech job openings. At least for Americans.

Instead, they have turned to outsourcing and importing.

“Outsourcing’ means “transferring work outside the company.’ It has increasingly come to mean “firing US employees and shifting their jobs outside the USA, to places with cheaper wages.’

“Importing,’ in this context, means “firing American workers and replacing them with foreigners on H-1B visas, who work for cheaper wages.’

Notice the common phrase in both definitions: “firing US employees.’

Also the common phrase: “cheaper wages.’

Which brings up one interesting question we haven’t seen anyone else ask.

If these companies were doing OK before—paying American salaries to American workers—why did they feel the need to switch to workers who earn cheaper wages?

Most articles on the subject seem to uncritically accept the “ducks in a line” theory. This assumes that if one company starts lowering its costs via cheaper wages, then all the others in that industry must do so as well, in order to compete.

However, the period of downsizing, importing, and outsourcing has also seen the highest CEO salaries on record. Which leads us to consider an alternative explanation.

If you replace 500 American workers with foreigners, and save $30,000 per worker, that is $15 million that the CEO and his cronies can use to increase their salaries.

If this turns out to be the engine driving much of outsourcing, then it’s not likely to slow down or reverse any time soon. Managers who crave huge bonuses and salaries will have way too much incentive to ignore the “quality” issue. An engineer from India will equal an engineer from America, even if the “engineer” from another country is actually a graduate of a 2-year tech program or is an H-1B applicant who simply lied about his or her training and experience.

If outsourcing is only driven by normal market forces, though, then if foreign tech workers turn out to produce work of less quality, and cost more to manage, companies’ yen for outsourcing will eventually subside.

We have put more hours than you could believe into researching the trends in STEM jobs, and next issue we’ll share the results, with some very specific recommendations for our readers’ high-school curriculum.

In the meantime, though, let’s hear from a man with a message: entrepreneur Bob Compton. With the help of the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, he created a documentary, 2 Million Minutes, advocating that American students work a lot harder on their STEM skills. (See review of 2MM in the sidebar.)

Bob Compton Speaks

“Every teen has the same number of minutes. Because of what our society rewards, we allocate that time very differently.

“The main message of Two Million Minutes is that the high-school education that Chinese and Indian students are getting is a better education in preparation for the high-tech, high-cognitive-skill requirements of the 21st century. Our perception is they are just math and science geeks. They are MUCH stronger in those subjects, but also have a very solid education in English grammar and lit, world history, and geography.

“I’m not talking about their time in school—it’s more what they do outside of school. [In my documentary] you see [American student] Neil working for 20 hours/week at a fast-food restaurant. He’s learning the skills of cooking spaghetti, serving tables, and cleaning up afterwards. This is very typical for American teens. I worked in a fast-food restaurant, too! The students in India and China, who are much lower-income than Neil’s parents, apply that time to deeper study of biology or chemistry, or debate team, or playing concert violin.”

PHS: Indian and Chinese teens can’t drive, and their universities don’t add points for work experience shown on your college application, as American colleges do. American high-school students get jobs to pay for car insurance and gasoline, and also to pump up their “well roundedness” to college admissions officials. Also, outside jobs teach important social and business skills, not just the actual job skills. All that said, we have encouraged our own children to limit their employment while in high school. If you can put in extra study hours and earn a $80,000 scholarship, that’s better than any job will pay.

Bob: “Neil was also on the football team, training year round about 20 hours a week. While Indians and Chinese do play sports, they practice about 5 hours a week. [Indian student] Rohit would take that 15 hours and go to a physics tutorial, preparing him for the exam.

“My daughters used to spend 4 hours a day, 6 days a week, swimming in the pool, year-round. That didn’t count the time traveling or attending swim meets. After I came back from India and China we sat down as a family, and I explained that while they are in the pool 24 hours a week, there are girls in India and China spending that time studying biology. Because we have a global economy, you’re going to be competing with them. My daughter wants to be a pediatric oncologist. So now my daughters participate in athletics during the athletics season, but they don’t train year-round.

“My film is not prescribing what the children should do. It’s prescribing what the ADULTS should do. Colleges should ask if it is really important for a student’s long-term career potential that he or she swam 24 hours a week for 4 solid years. Or is it enough that they swam 5 hours a week? We have taken the sports aspect to such a radical extreme that we have hurt our kids’ long-term career potential.”

PHS: Sports scholarships are one way lower-income families can pay for college. And sports are vital if you wish to enter a military academy. However, if your student isn’t All-American caliber, isn’t trying to get into a military academy, or can earn an academic scholarship, then Bob is giving good advice here.

“When I spoke in Huntington, WV, that was a town where the high-school football team is the biggest thing in town. I asked the audience, ‘How many of you who don’t have a son on the football team go to football games?’ Every hand went up. I then asked, ‘How many who don’t have son or daughter on debate team go to debate competitions?’ No hands went up. I told them they needed to change their priorities and they’d see a big difference in their children’s future. Huntington, WV used to have 80,000 people. Now it’s 50,000. So they’re taking me seriously.”

PHS: But we bet they still aren’t attending debate competitions.

Much of what we learned watching Bob’s documentary and researching the college admissions process and job market comes down to this:

Homeschoolers still have an amazing advantage over schooled kids, whether from America or anywhere else.

Our extra “time on task” and even our lack of some extracurriculars can pay off, big time. Tune in next issue for the details of how to help your kids win the global job competition!

2 Million Minutes DVD Review by Mary Pride

2 Million Minutes is about how high-school students invest the two million minutes of their four years in high school. Producer Bob Compton had film crews record six high school seniors in the U.S., India, and China in 2005 and 2006. The film ends up decrying the amount of time American kids spend on jobs, sports, and extracurriculars compared to kids in other countries. 2 Million Minutes appears to be saying that poor time choices in high school could cost America her technological lead—a warning I believe is sincere but misleading.

“How is your high school student allocating his/her two million minutes?” asked Compton. “That’s a question every parent should ask him or herself. It’s one I even had to ask myself.”

The film follows six students from three countries:

  • Two American students from a top-performing public high school in Indiana: Brittany Brechbuhl, 17, who dreams of becoming a doctor, and National Merit Semifinalist Neil Ahrendt, 18.
  • Two students from Bangalore, India: Apoorva Uppala, 17, and Rohit Sridharan, 17, both of whom want to be engineers.
  • From Shanghai, China: Hu Xiaoyuan, 17, a double threat in violin and biology, and genius math student Jin Ruizhang, 17.
The DVD throws out many facts meant to worry us, such as “Nearly 40% of U.S. high school students do not take any science class more challenging than general biology” and “By 12th grade, only 3% of African-Americans are proficient in math; 4% of Hispanics; 10% of Native Americans; 20% of whites; 34% of Asian-Americans.”

OK. That last one is worrisome. Less clear is how every single American student becoming a tech nerd would lead to greater employment and global dominance, considering that corporations are ferociously shipping tech jobs overseas and foreign tech workers into the USA. Or how American kids giving up jobs and extracurriculars would be the best way to improve their education. After all, the documentary tells us, “93% of middle school students are taught science by teachers with little or no training in the subject.” Wouldn’t better teachers be the best place to start?

A number of experts comment throughout the DVD. The one with the most believable voice is Harvard economist Richard Freeman. As he summarizes: “I think the key thing is not to get into a game where we say, ‘China’s graduating 600,000 engineers. We’re only graduating 60,000. Oh my goodness, we’re going to lose our comparative advantage. That’s not the case. It depends on how good our 60,000 people are, how well the industries make use of them, and it also depends on how quickly the wages in China and India and other countries come up for these people. And they will be rising fairly rapidly for good people in those countries.” Similar words of wisdom came from Vivek Paul, former CEO of one of India’s largest outsourcing companies. He said, “What America really is about, is creating opportunity. Economic mobility creates great motivation. It doesn’t exist that much in the rest of the world.”

Exactly. Which is why the rest of the world wants to come here.

So . . . are American kids misguided in how they spend their time? Should they be spending more hours on homework? Are top American kids actually spending as little time on homework as the film implies?

Here’s how it shakes out. American Neil gave up being captain of the football team “to pursue other activities,” such as his job and being graphics editor of the school paper. He ended up with a full scholarship to Purdue in his dream major. American Brittany is a double major in pre-med and Spanish at Indiana U. Meanwhile, not a single Indian or Chinese kid achieved their goal, in spite of mega-hours of tutoring and all-night homework sessions. Apoorva was not accepted by the university of her choice and Rohit did not get into India Institute of Technology. Xiaoyuan was not accepted at Yale and, crushingly, the kid we were rooting for the most, math genius Ruizhang, was accepted at Peking U but not into the Advanced Math program. Each of these hardworking uberbrains ended up falling short. And due to the countries they live in, there are no second chances. You can’t study harder, do more community service, travel abroad, or whatever, and apply again to your first choice.

The USA offers so many more routes to success. As was pointed out in our Colleges article, you can start with humble community college and end up at a top Ivy grad school. And if you decide later in life to try another career, you can take night school or weekend classes while still holding on to your job. It’s not “all or nothing”—a poor performance in high school can be overcome (not that we’re advocating poor performance!).

It’s worth noting that the DVD was created in partnership with “a nonpartisan movement supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” Bill Gates has been a primary force behind the H-1B crisis. Not only did he testify before Congress in 2007 that all limits should be removed on the number of H-1B workers imported, but a lobbyist he hired was responsible for the initial surge in H-1B. As a Computerworld article titled: “Round 4: H-1B War” says, “The roots of the H-1B increases go back to Jack Abramoff and his lobbying connections. Under Bill Gates’ employ, Jack Abramoff successfully lobbied for an increase in the cap in 1999 from 85,000 to 195,000 visas. Shortly thereafter, in 2001, this increase coupled with the the dot-com bust was responsible for massive unemployment in the tech industry which lasted for several years.”

According to the Programmers Guild, if America’s competitive advantage is eroding, it’s because “Bill Gates has used the H-1b program to facilitate that erosion. Microsoft used the H-1B visa to train a critical mass of foreign workers within the U.S., then used these workers to establish overseas operations, with U.S. technology in their back pockets.”

All that being said, 2 Million Minutes is still a DVD to watch and to show to our children. They need to know what they are up against . . . and that includes the attitudes of some of the experts on the DVD.

So far 12,000 copies of the 2 Million Minutes DVD have been sold, half to high schools and middle schools. The Gates’ foundation also has been flying Bob Compton around to show his DVD to “thought leaders.”

For individual use, the DVD is $25, from www.2mminutes.com. Be sure to have your kids try their hands at the site’s “Third World Challenge Exam.” And keep an eye out for Bob Compton’s next DVD—about entrepreneurship around the world, starting with communist China. Just when you future business majors were starting to relax . . .


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