The STEM Sell
By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #83, 2008.
How alarmed should we be about how American high-school students use their 3 Million Minutes
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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:
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.”
- 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
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
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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