The Challenge for Our Schools: Thomas Friedman and Education

Retort by Harry Keller with a distilling retort on the left

Today, in his New York Times Op-Ed (Webcite alternative), Thomas L. Friedman made this comment:

Good-paying jobs don’t come from bailouts. They come from start-ups. And where do start-ups come from? They come from smart, creative, inspired risk-takers. How do we get more of those? There are only two ways: grow more by improving our schools or import more by recruiting talented immigrants.

This respected economist and commentator has closely linked our education system to our future success as a nation. He also argued for more immigration, more H-1B visas with longer durations.

These are two quite separate issues, improving our schools and getting more smart risk-takers to immigrate. Due to the manner in which Mr. Friedman has conflated them, I’d like to make the situation clear. H-1B visa users are not the same as immigrants and don’t fulfill Mr. Friedman’s vision of bright start-up creators coming to America.

I’ve met lots of H-1B visa holders in high-tech industry. While these may not truly represent the entire set of H-1B visa holders, they do represent the reason that companies in high-tech industries consistently lobby for expansion of this program. To a person, the H-1B workers were paid much lower salaries than their American-born counterparts. The corporate purpose behind the H-1B program is simple and clear: to reduce costs and artificially to depress wages of American-born high-tech workers.

Furthermore, most of these workers were living in very low overhead accommodations. Often, they were sending scant savings back to families back in their countries of origin. For the most part, they weren’t truly immigrants, people interested in becoming American citizens and making a new life in the United States.

While Mr. Friedman’s point about America being energized by immigration is correct, his extension of the idea to H-1B visas missed an essential point. He is also correct about good schools being another source of great start-up pioneers. Education is our best long-term engine of growth. Other countries recognize this fact. Here, not so much. For example, I watched some years ago as the town I lived in (in Massachusetts at the time) had a proposition 2-1/2 override on the ballot. It would have cost the average homeowner a few dollars a week to improve our schools, which were literally falling apart. The ballot initiative failed. For our townspeople, an extra couple of  beers a week was more important than a good education for our children.

Here, at the ETC Journal, we write about education technology and how to use it properly. Technology covers a wide swath. For me, it mostly means computer-based equipment and software. I’d like to see technology, in science education anyway, improve learning and, especially, understanding of science. I’d like to see it save schools money by replacing more expensive alternatives without losing education quality, allowing teachers to deal effectively with more students, or reducing capital costs.

We (in the United States) are currently facing extreme problems with school budgets. In the Great Depression, just about the only safe job was teaching. No longer. Teachers are being laid off in large numbers these days. Have we devalued education so much since the 1930s? It’s time that the mantra of “No new taxes” be put out to pasture. We must replace it with “No second-rate America!”  But I digress.

Today, this journal along with many groups promoting technology in education have great value because they’re forging a new education environment that will allow us to provide great education despite local and temporal problems. Speaking just about America, I see a future in which blighted urban neighborhoods will have science education equal to the richest ones. Remote rural areas will have the same educational opportunities as their counterparts in more populous regions. I expect that similar opportunities will extend worldwide.

Speaking just about America, I see a future in which blighted urban neighborhoods will have science education equal to the richest ones.

In order to achieve this future, technology must not be viewed as wonderful gadgetry. No school should invest in technology for its own sake. In particular, schools must cease buying hardware without considering software and training. Just as in businesses, they must seek out software first, then allocate money for training, and, finally, find funds for hardware. If funds are insufficient, then they must limit purchases to what they can afford for all three: software, training, and hardware.

In seeking software, schools have to consider what works in the classroom, and they must eliminate the new gadget effect that has teachers suddenly trying harder because of a new classroom toy. What will be the impact of the new technology year after year? Will improvements remain after the shine wears off?

We won’t find quick and easy answers to most of these questions because we’re dealing with new technology. I’ll leave further discussion of this topic to another day.

To answer Thomas Friedman’s challenge directly, I say let’s make our schools great by employing great technology to empower good teachers making great courses. By having the highest possible quality of education, we’ll make our nation more attractive for immigrants and deal with the second half of his equation without resorting to visa games.

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