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  • Who Needs an Educated Workforce?
Mar 2011
Mar. 7, 2011 — Outrage, it seems, is a fickle mistress. In recent weeks we have seen enough fury about the deficit and ostensibly related wedge issues to fuel…I dunno, a highly inefficient fury machine. Other concerns, though, just haven’t inspired the same kind of widespread righteous anger. Not least of these: our troubled education system.

Sure, there’s all kinds of talk about accountability — has been for years. But as much as people might agree that pulling funding from underperforming schools is somehow a good idea, they don’t get fired up about education in quite the same way as about the deficit. They’re not breaking out the pitchforks, you know?

Well, they are, but only now that governors — in my home state of New Jersey, for example, and more recently in Wisconsin — have pegged teachers and teachers’ unions as, at best, unwilling to aid efforts to address budget shortfalls (and at worst as entirely unrepentant drags on the economy).

The deficit is obviously a tremendous concern, one which we can no longer ignore. But slashing spending — on salaries for educators and other public employees, on services like Planned Parenthood that account for a fraction of the total budget — can only go so far. If legislators are serious about reducing the deficit in the long term, they must also focus on increasing the gross domestic product, or GDP.

The Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington noted this late last month (see: “The Incredible Shrinking Budget Debate: Why the Only Choice We’re Being Offered Is Between Bad and Worse.” ). When we talk about the deficit, she said, what we’re really talking about is the debt-to-GDP ratio. “Yet the debate is concentrated almost entirely on the debt side of the equation and barely at all on ways to increase the GDP side.”

It’s not as if ideas aren’t out there, though. A landmark 2005 report from the National Academy of Sciences — “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” — referred to technological innovation as the largest single driver of the US economy and offered recommendations as to how to shore up our position in this area, thus helping us compete in the global marketplace. Among the recommendations: address the myriad issues impacting K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and math.

Not a month goes by, it seems, where we don’t see another alarming study about STEM in the United States, and in particular about STEM education. According to the World Economic Forum, for example, the US ranks 48th in quality of education in mathematics and science.

Similar statistics can be found across the education spectrum. But we don’t see our leaders tripping over one another taking up the fight, as they have with such apparent relish in slashing the budget. Mostly, I think, because there’s no widespread public outrage compelling them to action, no deafening clamor among the citizenry, no Milk-and-Cookie Party taking to the streets demanding reform.

Until there is, things aren’t likely to change. And that’s not good for any of us.

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