Start Knowledge Revolution Now

November 23, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — There’s a movement under way to advance math, science and technology education and build the intellectual capital in the West Michigan region and the state.

Math and science are the fundamental building blocks of the “knowledge economy,” and if West Michigan hopes to maintain a competitive edge, it has to graduate students with strong fundamental knowledge of math, science and technology. And it has to start that education process now.

That was the message delivered Monday by a panel of Michigan business and education experts who gathered at the Van Andel Institute (VAI) to discuss “The Knowledge Revolution” and its implications for the region, the state and the nation. The Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative (ERI) and the VAI co-sponsored the event.

Diana Sieger, Grand Rapids Community Foundation president, referenced a recent poll of Michigan parents conducted by Lansing-based EPIC/MRA, in conjunction with The Detroit News, which found that only one in four parents in Michigan believed that a good education is essential for getting ahead in life. Nearly half of parents don’t think everyone should have a college education, and three out of five people polled defined the success of their children without reference to education or the ability to support themselves.

It’s no wonder that fewer than 25 percent of Michigan residents over the age of 25 have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, Sieger said. In fact, just slightly more than 60 percent of Grand Rapids Public Schools children actually graduate from high school.

“It is incumbent upon each of us to change attitudes about, and investment in, education — in our city, our state and our nation. Those investments begin right here at home,” she said. “Even if your child is getting a great education, you should be concerned. Unless your neighbor in the urban core of Grand Rapids gets the same education and has the same technical and scientific career opportunities, our entire country will continue to fall behind those nations who guarantee those opportunities to their children.”

Congressman Vern Ehlers, a physicist and long-time advocate of math and science education, has been working with schools for years to improve scientific literacy. He tells students that when making decisions about what courses to take in high school, they should be guided by one principle: In today’s world, you will either be a nerd or end up working for a nerd.

“Why science, technology, engineering and math education? Because jobs of the future will require an understanding of the basic concepts and principles of math and science,” Ehlers said. “I’m not talking just about scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technicians. It’s all jobs. If you don’t have some knowledge of the basic concepts and principles of math and science, you will be at a disadvantage in the job market of the future.”

What’s the problem? The average math skill score of American fourth grade students is slightly below average compared to the international average, Ehlers pointed out. By eighth grade, the average American score drops even lower, and by high school the score is second from the bottom on math scores and dead last on physics scores.

Ehlers further noted that in 1980 China was producing about 25,000 engineers per year, or half of what the United States was producing. Last year, China produced 300,000 engineers, or six times what the United States produced. Europe has now surpassed the United States in the number of science- and engineering-degreed students. Asia, which was far below the United States in 1975, now exceeds it in that respect, too. It’s predicted that by 2010 more than 90 percent of all scientists will live in Asia.

Juan Enriquez, who spoke at the Grand Rapids Economic Club luncheon earlier that day, is an author known as a leading authority on the economic and political impacts of life sciences.

Enriquez talked about once-great cultures that were known for their scientific expertise and achievement. Some are now lost civilizations. Others didn’t pass on the tradition of math and science education — and lost that expertise.

“When a culture forgot about that stuff, it disappeared,” Enriquez said. He debunked the myth that some people are really good at math and science and some are bad at those subjects. There is no Asian gene that makes people particularly good at math, he said, but there are societies that are good at math because their culture places a high value on math and science education.

“We must begin to recognize and reward good schools as a nation,” he suggested. “We need to refocus on math, science and technology long before kids get to college.”

Dave Bing, chairman of The Bing Group, said he thinks America ought to do a better job of educating its teachers how to educate the nation’s children.

“We have a lot of kids today, especially in urban America, who don’t challenge themselves, who don’t strive for excellence: They just want to be average. I think the parents have a job to do at home and teachers have a job to do at school.”

University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, who is a biochemist, said American society must insist on educational standards and excellence.

“We’ve got to be dead serious about this; this is no longer something we can either take or leave,” Coleman said.

Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley noted that Michigan has been trying to reform its educational system for more than two decades but that the initiatives tried thus far have never taken hold because the state started the process without changing its culture.

“We still don’t have a culture that values education the way it should value education,” Finley said. “None of the fixes we’ve proposed or the reforms we put in place will take, unless our parents see the value in those fixes and reforms.”

The Michigan Department of Education has engaged in a detailed study on the issue of improving state high schools, and now proposes to “improve the rigor, relevance and outcomes” of Michigan high schools “in order to prepare students to succeed in post-secondary education and subsequent careers in the competitive global economy” of the 21st century. The proposal calls for “a rigorous curriculum of math and science,” along with strong reading and writing skills.

“One of the most important tests we face as a state is whether we have the political will to put in place this curriculum that will actually prepare students for the jobs ahead,” Finley said. “General Motors just announced 30,000 more job cuts and nine more plant closings, and still the message doesn’t seem to get through to the people of our state that the world has changed. The crisis is upon us today, and how we react to the those new curriculum standards will be an acute test.”

Bridge Street Capital Partners co-founder Mike Jandernoa, former chairman and CEO of Perrigo, said the community has to think longer and harder about what careers the future might bring, and also has to raise expectations not just for high academic achievers, but for every student.

Enriquez said the single most dangerous thing the U.S. federal government is doing today is spending $21,122 a year for each individual over age 65, while spending only $2,106 annually on each student under the age of 16.

“The ratio of spending in this country is 10 times as much for those who are here than those who are coming up,” he pointed out. “Guess who’s going to build the new economy? Guess who you’re investing in?”

Enriquez proposed that the federal spending pattern be changed. The audience responded with thunderous applause when he said: “If you want to give politicians incentive to do this, give parents proxy to vote for their child.”

America can resist educational change and perish as a world leader, or it can embrace educational change and enter an enlightened “Renaissance,” he concluded.    

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