Wednesday, September 19, 2012

why it's never mattered that america's schools lag behind other countries

techcrunch | It’s easier to know what doesn’t work than what does. We know schooling can’t broadly impact innovation much, because we can track learning step-by-step through the life of a student. Tracking the countless variables that go into creating an innovation superpower is more daunting. But, we can make a few educated guesses.

Most importantly, the innovators at the helm of an economy come from the top quarter of students. While the United States has a dismal track-record of inequality, we treat our brightest minds quite well. The “average test scores are mostly irrelevant as a measure of economic potential,” write Hal Salzman & Lindsay Lowell in the prestigious journal, Nature, “To produce leading-edge technology, one could argue that it is the numbers of high-performing students that is most important in the global economy.”

The United States, they find, has among the highest percentage of top-performing students in the world. Whether the abundance of smart students is a product of U.S. culture, an artifact of the genetic lottery, or some unknown factor hidden in our education system is anyone’s guess.

We do know where some of our best talent comes from: other countries. In some ways, the United States steals its way to economic superiority: it rangles the world’s brightest minds to immigrate. The U.S. holds roughly 17% of the world’s International students, compared to 2nd-place Britain (~12%) and far more than education powerhouses, Korea, Switzerland, and Sweden (all below 5%).

A quarter of CEOs in technology and science are foreign born and 76 percent hold key positions in engineering, technology, and management, according to Stanford researcher and TechCrunch contributor, Vivek Wadhwa.

“More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. were founded by immigrants or their children, and these firms alone employ over 10 million individuals. Some of our country’s most iconic brands – including IBM, Google, and Apple – were founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. And nearly half of the top 50 venture-backed companies in the U.S. had at least one immigrant founder,” wrote Aol founder Steve Case (Aol is the parent company of TechCrunch).

And, our brightest native and immigrant minds are greeted with extraordinary research and economic opportunity. After World War II, the United States emerged as an economic superpower. Massive investment poured into universities and scientific research, which became the genesis for the Internet, itself.

While it’s difficult to speculate why the U.S. persists as a titan of innovation, we need not be scared into trying to be like other countries. America has been at the top in spite of a lack-luster education system. Fist tap Dale.