Thursday, November 3, 2011

Troubles and Challenges

The national Occupy movement has me pondering a few points. First, it's not going away. Last night Occupy Oakland had 15,000 marchers who shut down both the Port of Oakland and the Bay Bridge. We have high unemployment and even higher under-employment (those who are part-time employed only because they cannot find full-time employment). We have young people who were told that if they played by the rules and got a good education then they would have a successful future. Those same young people are now carrying $25,000 or more student debt and have nothing on their horizon. Large groups of unemployed and youth are the right ingredients for any social movement. Yet, I tarry too long; let me get to the point of this post.

As the economic crisis settles into the "new normal", there will be an attempt to shift the blame down, way down to educators. Have we not already seen signs of this?

In the 1980s corporations began to pursue low wage manufacturing in developing countries. For the first time in history, any kind of effort to tariff to protect domestic industries was anathema. No politician Republican or Democrat wanted to be called, "protectionist". That's silly in light of the fact that trade has been regulated since the days of Ancient Rome. However, that's the story we bought; so, goods were manufactured with slave wages and brought back to be sold in the US with low or no tax penalties.

As manufacturing jobs left the US in droves, public policy makers said, "Don't worry, we can be a service and information based economy." For a while that looked viable as we rode the wave of Internet technology. However, the erosion of US jobs continued as we discovered that services such as telemarketing, data entry, and customer service could also be outsourced.

Decision makers stepped in again to reassure the public by saying, "Don't worry. It's true we will not manufacture or provide many services, but we will be the engineers, scientists, and designers."

Now, we are experiencing the dissolution of that dream as well. Guess what, just as there are nations where people are desperate to manufacture for slave wages, there are also nations with plenty of very smart people willing to engineer for grossly unfair wages.

This is the crucial point: Just as manufacturing left the US in pursuit of low wages, so has Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). US corporations did not leave the US in pursuit of smarter employees for those jobs. Corporations left to get people to do STEM for the same bargain basement wages that they can now get for manufacturing.

Some people are blaming educators for not giving the nation enough well educated STEM graduates to compete with other nations. But that was never the cause of job flight to begin with.

A combined effort of researchers Hal Salzman from Rutgers and Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown looked at the STEM issue in a study using thirty years of longitudinal data. The report titled, “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline,” is a fascinating and comprehensive look at STEM. In short, we are graduating STEM students with as much quality and quantity as we were in the 1970s. The difference is that now, for every three STEM graduates we give the nation, there is one STEM job waiting for them.

Educators are not to blame for any of this economic mess. However, they may be able to help if given the resources and freedom to educate with a well-rounded curriculum that is not fixated on either test scores or STEM alone. Educators will accept the challenge to help move us into a new economy, but they should never accept the blame for the current economic situation.

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