Fifty years ago Sputnik revealed what many feared was a science and technology "gap" between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Since then our competitors have changed, but the perception of second-class status hasn't. Many are calling for a new "Sputnik spike" to launch more Americans into science and engineering careers.
The most vocal groups?
In August President Bush signed the America COMPETES Act aimed at recruiting more science and math teachers and drawing more students into those disciplines. Earlier efforts along these lines haven't stopped Bill Gates and his counterparts from Google, Intel, and other high-tech companies from claiming the "skills shortage" can only be resolved by importing foreign scientists and engineers.
A new report by the Urban Institute, a left-of-center think tank, offers corroboration. Authors Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute and Professor Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University show that both in terms of quantity and quality, U.S. students are now at the top of the international rankings. (Into the Eye of the Storm Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand [PDF])
On international test scores, the headlines always seem dismal. Math skills of U.S. students ranked 27th among the 38 countries tested in 2003 by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
On a second test—TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)—U.S. 8th graders placed 15th in math—but a surprisingly high 9th out of 45 countries tested in science.
Salzman and Lowell note that the countries we trail are a "haphazard collection of mostly small countries and devoid of consistent leaders with a few exceptions." The "exceptions" are the usual suspects: Japan, Korea, Singapore, China, Taipei, and Hong Kong are the perennial top five in both math and science. Yet the U.S. is one of the few countries that consistently score above the international average and show consistent improvement over time in TIMSS math and science scores.
PISA researchers report that demographic, linguistic, and other non-school differences influence their rankings far more than the quality of science and math education. And guess what? Immigration policy is flagged as a key explanatory variable:
"…..Almost all of the population of Japan, 99 percent, speaks Japanese as their first language, compared with the 18 percent of the U.S. population that lives in a household in which a language other than English is spoken. Along these lines, consider that Norway, one of the top-scoring western nations, has a small population of 4.5 million with an immigrant population of just 7 percent, of which 44 percent is European (with relatively similar social and cultural conditions and background). Although Canada has a foreign-born population of 18 percent compared with 11 percent of the U.S. population, Canada has a much more restrictive immigration policy, effectively limiting immigration to high-skilled workers, those establishing a business, and family members of those already in Canada. (Canada is one of the few countries in which natives do not significantly outperform immigrants….)"
"An important difference between the United States and most of the other nations tested is the comparative race/ethnic diversity of the U.S. student body and social conditions. In fact, the United States stands quite alone in terms of its diversity as, for example, "Germany and Italy were nearly 100% white, and Japan's [population] nearly 100% Asian [and] Canada's [minority population is predominantly] Asian" (Boe and Shin 2005, 693). Boe and Shin analyze the test scores of U.S. students and find that white students handily outscore students in the Western G5 nations in math and science, albeit they do not do as well as Japanese students. On the other hand, U.S. white students (with a percentile rank of 92) handily outscore Japanese students on reading (with a percentile rank of 69)."
Salzman and Lowell look in vain for a skilled-worker shortage:
"…. The overall S&E [Science and Engineering] workforce totals about 4.8 million, which is less than a third of the 15.7 million workers who hold at least one S&E degree….Past employment growth follows this same pattern. From 1985 to 2000, the U.S. graduated about 435,000 S&E students annually with bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees—that total includes only domestic citizens and permanent residents….Over the same time period, net change in S&E occupational employment ran about 150,000 annually, such that the average ratio of all S&E graduates to net employment change was about three to one."
Obviously most S&E grads—including the most talented—end up working in other fields. For some this is a planned career change—e.g., the engineering grad who becomes a patent lawyer. But for most the career shift is not discretionary:
"…These studies conclude that the decline in the native S&E worker pool may reflect a weakening demand, a comparative decline in S&E wages, and labor market signals to students about low relative wages in S&E occupations. Indeed, research finds that the real wages in S&E occupations declined over the past two decades and labor market indicators suggest little shortage ….. Some researchers see these demand-side market forces causing highly qualified students to pursue other careers."
As for the shortage shouters, the authors see them as exacerbating the problem:
"….Similarly, IT executives calling for greatly increasing, or even completely removing, numerical caps on foreign worker visas (e.g. the H-1B) may be sending strong signals to students and current workers about diminished career opportunities. Human capital is a long-term investment and potential S&E students read all the tea leaves before investing."
Inescapable conclusion: Bill Gates and his ilk are self-serving prophets issuing self-fulfilling prophecies.