America at Risk

On September 23, the National Academies published a depressing report; a follow up to their 2005 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, called Rapidly Approaching Category 5.* For those of you who don’t live in the Southeastern part of the U.S., “Category 5” means the strongest, most dangerous type of hurricane.

The 2005 report argued that the U.S. risked losing its position at the top of the international economic order, because of failures to fund basic scientific research, and failures to develop excellent K-12 and college-level science and engineering education. The 2005 report was requested by a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, and the report resulted in the 2007 “America Competes Act” which was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bush, but which was never funded.

The new report concludes that “the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.” The U.S. is still 6th place in innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in the rate of change over the last ten years (that means everyone else is catching up fast). We are 11th place in the percentage of people who graduate from high school and 16th place in college completion rate; 27th place in the proportion of college students getting science or engineering degrees; 48th place in the quality of K-12 math and science education. The report recommends dramatic improvements in K-12 science and math education.

A New York Times editorial placed some of the blame on universities, saying “Too often, science curriculums are grinding and unimaginative, which may help explain why more than half of all college majors quit the discipline before they earn their degrees” (Oct. 26, 2010, p. A24). This is why I have become involved in discussions surrounding the future of engineering education.

And it’s why I am so committed to my own research on creativity and learning. The U.S. needs solid, research-based findings about exactly how to improve science and math education, both K-12 and university, so that it results in the kind of learning needed in today’s innovation economy. I have called this “educating for innovation”; it is perhaps a bit sad that I receive more speaking invitations on this topic in Europe and in Asia than I do in the U.S. In the United Kingdom, creativity is a mandatory part of the National Curriculum for K-12 schools. Where is creativity in American schools? It is relegated to arts, music, and theater programs (if those haven’t been cut already due to budget woes).

We need creative education in math, science, and engineering. There are reasons to be optimistic: this new report was generated by our nation’s top scholars and researchers, indicating a deep awareness of the problem; the National Science Foundation has been committed to these issues for many years already; and, research in the learning sciences is thriving and generating exciting new knowledge every day. At some point in the near future, I hope that these positive efforts align together and result in a real change in how we educate our students.

**Rising above the gathering storm: Rapidly approaching category 5.” National Academies.