Engineers Blast U.S. Education, Embrace Charter Schools

Published May 1, 1998

The nation’s education system, ill-prepared to equip today’s students for the technology-oriented workplace of the twenty-first century, is in need of systemic reform, according to a special report in the April issue of the engineering trade journal IEEE Spectrum.

Offering charter schools as an example of the kind of quality-oriented reform education requires, the report’s authors call for more freedom, more local responsibility, curriculum reform, improved standards, and testing of student skills in science and problem-solving.

In their article, “Few Gold Stars for Precollege Education,” authors Constantine N. Anagnostopoulos, chair of IEEE-USA’s Precollege Education Committee, and Lauren A. Williams, operations coordinator of The College Board in Washington, DC, warn that the United States is being eclipsed by other countries in technological literacy–the ability to understand, apply, and make decisions about the sciences and mathematics.

The article cites the February 1998 results of the Third International Math and Science Study, which showed U.S. 12th-graders scoring well below the international average in advanced math and physics. (See “U.S. 12th Graders Flunk International Math and Science Test,” School Reform News, April 1998.)

One deficiency of U.S. education noted by the IEEE Spectrum authors is that the U.S. eighth-grade curriculum is taught at seventh grade in other countries. In addition, only students in higher-level classes in the U.S. are exposed to algebra and geometry, while those subjects are studied by virtually all eighth-graders in Germany and Japan.

“By the year 2000, approximately 60 percent of new jobs will require skills possessed by just 22 percent of the high school graduates and dropouts entering the market today,” notes Murray Slovick, editor and associate publisher of IEEE Spectrum. “When it comes to the technological skills needed for success in the job market, U.S. students are coming up short.”

While several initiatives are underway to improve the quality of U.S. education, Anagnostopoulos and Williams warn against a top-down imposition of standards, which for them is reminiscent of the outdated idea of production standards set by quality control departments. That approach has been abandoned by more progressive manufacturing companies in favor of the “quality” methods taught by W. Edwards Deming.

Deming’s “quality” principles are few and simple: make quality the responsibility of everyone, rather than judging quality at the end of the line; set up a process for continuous improvement; and focus on customer satisfaction. Adopting quality principles and methods has made U.S. factories very competitive, and real improvement in the U.S. education system may require their adoption, too.

Such “systemic reform” requires more cooperation and coordination among teachers and administrators, more freedom, and more local responsibility. It means reforming curricula and establishing standards and tests that measure students’ ability to master scientific processes, reason, and solve problems.

Charter schools embody this new approach, say Anagnostopoulos and Williams. Funded with public education dollars, charter schools emphasize a particular academic focus, such as science or art, or espouse a particular teaching philosophy. Most important, charter schools are freed from many of the regulations that govern regular public schools, as long as they deliver the results promised in their charters.

“No longer can the world be trusted to a few specialists,” says IEEE Spectrum editor Slovick. “For the United States to remain competitive, technological literacy must go from being the luxury of the few to the duty of everyone.”

IEEE Spectrum is a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, an international, non-profit organization with some 300,000 members. For more information, contact IEEE-USA, 1828 L Street NW #1202, Washington, DC 20036-5104; phone 202/785-0017; fax 202/785-0835.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].