May 28, 2024

America Competes Act (Farce?)

The U.S. Senate recently passed, with no discernible fanfare whatsoever, a bill entitled the America Competes Act.

According to

the bill would increase research investment by:

• Doubling funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) from approximately $5.6 billion in Fiscal Year 2006 to $11.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2011.

• Setting the Department of Energy’s Office of Science on track to double in funding over ten years, increasing from $3.6 billion in Fiscal Year 2006 to over $5.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2011.

• Directing NASA to increase funding for basic research and fully participate in interagency activities to foster competitiveness and innovation, using the full extent of existing budget authority.

• Coordinating ocean and atmospheric research and education at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies to promote U.S. leadership in these important fields.

And strengthen educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and critical foreign languages by:

• Authorizing competitive grants to States to promote better alignment of elementary and secondary education with the knowledge and skills needed for success in postsecondary education, the 21st century workforce, and the Armed Forces…

• Strengthening the skills of thousands of math and science teachers by establishing training and education programs at summer institutes hosted at the National Laboratories and by increasing support for the Teacher Institutes for the 21st Century program at NSF.

• Expanding the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program at NSF to recruit and train individuals to become math and science teachers in high- need local educational agencies.

• Assisting States in establishing or expanding statewide specialty schools in math and science that students from across the state would be eligible to attend and providing expert assistance in teaching from National Laboratories’ staff at those schools.

• Facilitating the expansion of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs by increasing the number of teachers prepared to teach AP/IB and pre-AP/IB math, science, and foreign language courses in high need schools, thereby increasing the number of courses available and students who take and pass AP and IB exams.

• Developing and implementing programs for bachelor’s degrees in math, science, engineering, and critical foreign languages with concurrent teaching credentials and part-time master’s in education programs for math, science, and critical foreign language teachers to enhance both content knowledge and teaching skills.

• Creating partnerships between National Laboratories and local high-need high schools to establish centers of excellence in math and science education.

• Expanding existing NSF graduate research fellowship and traineeship programs, requiring NSF to work with institutions of higher education to facilitate the development of professional science master’s degree programs, and expanding NSF’s science, mathematics, engineering and technology talent program.

• Providing Math Now grants to improve math instruction in the elementary and middle grades and provide targeted help to struggling students so that all students can master grade-level mathematics standards.

• Expanding programs to increase the number of students from elementary school through postsecondary education who study critical foreign languages and become proficient.

Kudos to the senators for recognizing one of the failures of America’s educational system: the production of minds capable of making real contributions in the scientific, engineering, and technical fields.

On a gut, cause-and-effect level I think this bill is great. We’ve fallen way behind in these fields and need to catch up.  In Washington the standard way of solving a problem is to throw money at it. Doing so will help – our schools’ science and math programs are a national disgrace and funding is a big part of that – but I don’t believe that either money or good intentions will make a significant difference even if the bill does get passed into law.

Here are three reasons for my skepticism. First, the glitzy, glamorous, get-rich-quick mindset that dominates American culture and media has no respect whatsoever for the true difference-makers in America.

Go to MSN or Yahoo and see what’s on the front page there. Paris Hilton, Britney, American Idol, some hip-hop loser I’ve never heard of, horoscopes, sex tips, blah, blah, blah.

It’s trash disguised as information and none of it has any value. Justin Timberlake is more revered than Stephen Hawking, the most notable of today’s scientists. Bill Gates, the ultimate entreprenuer and technical achiever is mocked as a geeky monopolist.

Meanwhile, Al Gore and Michael Moore, two of the most notorious non-contributors in American history, are winning Academy Awards from the pseudo-intellectuals in Hollywood.

Wall Street traders make more money than any scientist or engineer could dream of.  Yet what value do they produce?  Likewise actors, lawyers, and the executive boards at most American companies do little or nothing to enhance American society.  Yet all are more important than the scientists that make modern life possible.

Second, a large portion of the blame for the crisis must go to the American businesses and their stockholders that, in their haste to make windfall profits, pump up stock prices, and make their executives killings on Wall Street, have imported tens of thousands of low-priced foreign workers into America and exported as many professional and technical jobs as possible overseas.

Capitalism demands competition and wages are a huge part of a company’s cost structure. Yet an able work force is also part of a corporation’s assets, one that is frequently undervalued until it is no longer there. Increased foreign competition has made scientific and technical jobs pay less; in turn this reduces the incentives that young Americans have to pursue these fields. The result is a critical shortfall in young technical professionals who can compete on the world-class level, much to the detriment of American companies.

Do corporations even consider the long-term ramifications of using foreign workers to undercut American scientists and engineers? While this boosted profits in the short-term, the inevitable result is that Americans have abandoned the field for jobs in service industries that pay, for the moment, as well or better than those in technical fields while demanding only a fraction of the skill and effort. Why shouldn’t they? After all, people generally work for money, not the inherent satisfaction of a job they “love”.

And does the American government consider the strategic implications of depending on skilled labor from foreign countries such as China, Pakistan, and India? These nations are not openly hostile to the U.S. at this moment; however, that could change. Strategic thinking, it seems to me, would involve a longer view of the situation, a far smaller number of foreign worker visas, greater incentives for quality foreign workers to obtain American citizenship, and incentives to keep important skillsets on American soil.

Third, consider the children who are supposed to benefit from this well-intentioned legislation. Below are three charming examples of students behaving in utterly reprehensible ways that, despite the stupid, maladjusted nature of the students’ behavior, are far more common than we’d like to think:

If you look carefully at the links you’ll note that these examples were simply gleaned from a quick pass through one city’s local newspaper and all on the same day. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Another Virginia Tech-like incident?

I don’t know. But I do know that whatever happens in America’s public schools tomorrow it will be nothing that remotely compares to the way that students are behaving, learning, and preparing in the countries that will be our toughest competition in the decades to come.

An examination of the ACA bill reveals that a number of the educational reforms called for by the Senate are directed toward “high need” schools and “struggling” students. Ideally all American students would reach their potential, regardless of where they live, what color their skin is, or what their potential truly is. In a perfect world that would be a wonderful goal.

In the world in which we actually live, however, where competition is fierce and the victors dictate the course of human events it is important that America recognize the need to develop the abilities of our best and brightest far beyond the average and into the realm of the best in the world.

This is not possible in an educational system that emphasizes equality of outcome. Mediocrity, the obvious result of educating to an equivocal national average, will not keep America in its present position of world leadership.

What’s needed is a program like the ACA that is targeted at the smartest and most capable of our youth with the intent of giving them everything they need to catch up to their competition in other countries who have been given a head start by their wiser governments and societies.

The intellectual elite may scoff at such a blatantly non-egalitarian notion and the discrimination that it requires as a basis for its implementation. I couldn’t care less about their notion of equality, foolish as it is. I’m more interested in achieving a result that keeps America strong and independent, even if it means acknowledging that some children are smarter than others and so more deserving of our finite resources.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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