Passing the blame

According to a report by the American Electronics Association, high-tech companies blame second-rate math and science education in the U.S. for the offshoring of high-tech jobs. From Wired:

The American school system, which AeA researchers charge is failing to provide strong science and math education to students, is largely to blame for lost jobs, according to the AeA’s report, “Offshore Outsourcing in an Increasingly Competitive and Rapidly Changing World.”

“Companies aren’t outsourcing only in order to obtain cheap labor; they are also looking for skilled technology workers that they increasingly can’t find in the U.S.,” said Matthew Kazmierczak, senior manager of research at AeA, and one of the authors of the report.

On Assorted Stuff, Tim writes:

While this report sounds like another industry lobbying group trying to scare Congress into giving their companies lots of money, they do make one good point. We don’t do a good job of math and science instruction in this country. Part of the blame for that goes to society in general which gives lots of lip service to learning those subjects but then has an adult population which is largely (and often proudly) ignorant of even the most basic math and science concepts. How many people actually understand the odds behind the lottery or what the theory of evolution actually says?

I’ll probably get blasted for this, but I also blame the tsunami of standardized tests we spend a large part of the year preparing for. The math on these exams hardly gets up to the “high tech” level that the AEA report is referring to and most exams barely touch science at all since it’s not one of the indicators that NCLB requires. When the test becomes the target of instruction, learning settles for the lowest common denominator of the test.

Reform K12 — which is celebrating its 10,000th visitor — responds

The argument seems to be this: first standardized tests are criticized because schools must spend “most of the year” on test prep, which leads us to believe that they’re really, really hard. Then the tests are criticized because apparently the math and science on the test is not high tech (which we read as “easy”).

I’m not convinced by the AeA’s argument: If Indian programmers and engineers demanded U.S. wages, they’d be out of work. They’re highly educated and relatively cheap.

I also think testing has nothing to do with the problems of math and science education in the U.S. Many students flunk those very easy tests because they don’t know the basics. They’re not prevented from learning higher math because too much time is spent on test prep. The problem is they don’t know the basics.

I sat in on a charter school faculty meeting a few days ago that focused on test prep. The English, math, science and history teachers are making sure they teach the relevant state standards before students take the state test; they’re also discussing how to measure whether students know what they’ve been taught. This is not a waste of time, it seems to me.

About Joanne


  1. Another nail in the coffin of public education. The concept of teaching to the test simply doesn’t work, due to the fact that the only questions or problems the student can solve will be ones shown on the test.

    The end is near for the US, in terms of generating knowledgable students. The nation will be divided into two classes, ones who have education, and the ones who don’t (of course, the ones who have education will control all of the ones who don’t).

  2. I’m not convinced by the AeA’s argument: If Indian programmers and engineers demanded U.S. wages, they’d be out of work. They’re highly educated and relatively cheap.

    Actually, I think that was the AeA’s arguement. That U.S. workers are not well educated and are relatively expensive.

  3. (of course, the ones who have education will control all of the ones who don’t).

    If society does become two classes I hope you are right. I am afraid it will go the other way though. The uneducated will vote for whoever promises them the larger share of what the educated earn.

  4. Bob Diethrich says:

    “The uneducated will vote for whoever promises them the larger share of what the educated earn.”

    Just like “certain minority groups” can be counted on to vote for a particular party because of all the promises of special breaks that party promises to enact in order to keep members of that group from having to compete?

    Naaaaaaaahhh! Never happen

  5. I hate to disagree, but the math and science necessary to support a high tech business is not that much. As to math, you need basic Algebra, a modest understanding of statistics, and good grounding in logic. There are some (very very few) jobs that require very good (Doctoral level)education, but these are few and far between. I made my living in high tech as an engineer and programmer for 25 years.


  6. Mike…It depends what you mean by a “high tech business.” It’s true that for most programming jobs, the math actually used is limited to nonexistent. But people who have never experienced true intellectual rigor are unlikely to be able to do it. The “intellectual rigor” doesn’t have to be math; ancient Greek would probably work just fine. But today’s typical squishy “general studies” program won’t.

    And there *are* fieds that need a lot of math. If you’re designing an aircraft autopilot or a stability control system for a car, you’re going to need people on the team who understand servomechanism theory…and that’s about as mathematical as it gets.

  7. “Offshoring” is just the latest variation of a long term problem of getting enough high-tech workers to fill vacancies. There have also been many arguments over whether this need even exists or whether it is a just a way for large corporations to get cheaper labor. Rather than bringing in workers to work in the US, the work is now going overseas. The problem is not new, but the offshoring approach is much more common. It doesn’t necessarily mean that US citizens are losing jobs. (Although this new method is much easier than trying to bring in foreign workers.)

    As for preparing more US students for high tech careers, I think the problem is mostly in grades K-8. Schools have low and fuzzy expectations and don’t enforce the mastery of the basics in any kind of rigorous fashion. Also, one bad year of math and it could be all over. That is why parents and tutors play such an important role. I also see many current, popular math curricula that guarantee an unprepared student without outside help. By the time many parents figure it out, it is too late.

    Standardized tests follow my general rule that if you can’t do it yourself, then the government (the ten ton gorilla) will come in and do it for you. Since the K-12 teaching establishment couldn’t seem to guarantee that high school graduates knew much of anything, the government is forcing the issue with its NCLB. The details are left up to the individual states, but these tests are after-the-fact (too late for the student), lowest-common-denominator tests that no school should use as a criterion of great teaching or a great curriculum. As a parent, I have looked at these tests and I am completely unimpressed. If schools teach only to the test, then I want to know what they are doing for the rest of the school day. If schools say that they waste time on teaching the material on the test, then they should look at the test again and explain to parents why our kids shouldn’t know that material.

    The problem with these tests is that they set minimum goals which then become the target goals of the school. (the minimum becomes the maximum) Set your sights low and try to convince parents that they are high. These tests are not the cause of past problems, but I can see how they will institutionalize low expectations and praise for slow improvements towards a minimal goal.

    Go to the NAEP site and look at the questions yourself. It’ frightening. By the way, a staff education reporter at a major daily newspaper once told me that the NAEP test is the “gold standard”!?!

  8. Outsourcer says:

    I think a lot of this addresses the point only tangentially.
    I work as a project manager. I outsource the majority of my work. Here are a few general observations. Note that different people outsource differently, and the situations may vary for other companies.

    1. It usually isn’t much cheaper (and sometimes it actually costs more) to outsource than to hire locally. The cheap labor aspects of the work are canceled out due to increased management/communication costs.
    2. When choosing a vendor for a job, the work that generally goes overseas is at least partly due to an enthusiasm for the work that I didn’t find locally. In other words, even in high-tech, high-skilled jobs, there is a lot of work that Americans don’t want to do anymore, and this is mostly what moves overseas.

  9. Harvey Chao says:

    It ONLY started with manufacturing, now it progresses to math and science jobs as well.

    >The American school system, which AeA researchers charge is failing to provide strong science and math education to students, is largely to blame for lost jobs,. . .

    In life, there is always more than one facet of a story.

    I believe that in addition to the above, too many American students are insufficiently motivated to do the hard work in basic science and math during 4 years of high school to prepare them for a lot MORE college hard work in math, physics, chemistry and engineering classes. A through B.S. in Engineering, Chemistry, Physics, or Math only gives the graduate, at the end of 4 years of HARD work, the basics from which to pursue on-the-job training of the real work environment in one of those fields. Sorry to say, in my opinion, generally once you get past the 1st or maybe 2nd generation of immigrants, most are insufficiently motivated or “hungry” to work that hard.

    Additionally, these youngsters who may have thought how great some of these careers were (engineering, IT, programming, etc.), have seen first hand their parents go through the lay offs and wholesale shrinkage of these job categories as they grew up – they are not so dumb as to blindly ignore those factors which may have personally hit their own lives. I have spent a career in the defense industry and consider myself an extremely fortunate “survivor” to still participate – check the statistics regarding the shrinkage of “defense” companies. Consider the following names: Vought, Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, Lockheed, Chance, Northroup, Grumman, North American, Rockwell, Consolidated, Curtis, Marrietta, Douglas, … All Premier military aircraft companies at the end of WWII. Which remain? Lockheed-Martin and Boeing (I think General Dynamics exists, but is out of the aircraft business). Where did the labor force go that once staffed these companies? Anybody what to champion their son or daughter for a career in aerospace engineering? By the way, there is a HUGE “multiplier” here – for every engineer there are draftsmen, materials purchaseing, subcontracts, administrative, … people involved as well – so for every engineer you subtract you also take away “n” additional related jobs.

    >”Companies aren’t outsourcing only in order to obtain cheap labor; they are also looking for skilled technology workers that they increasingly can’t find in the U.S.,”

    Without hard data, I am still inclined to believe reports/rumors/anecdotal”evidence” that there are large numbers of under or un-employed American technology workers ready willing and able to do the work without cultural adjustments, communications and or language barriers or complications, and with good work ethics – but due to their seniority/age/salary history, compared to what companies can pay for overseas labor, just relatively too expensive. It has happened in union based industries first – textiles, electronic assembly, mechanical assembly, machine tools, . . . and now is getting around to “professional” fields such as engineering, computer programming, … etc.

    It is apparently cheaper to pay the communications (e.g. “phone bill”), shipping, and lower overseas labor rates (with fewer or no benefits) than the labor (union or not) rates and benefits of American workers. The problem in Europe is similar, and greater than here – that is why BMW builds certain model cars in North Carolina and not only sells them here, but also exports them to Germany and the rest of Europe. Look at the unemployment and economic stagnation in Europe. It is happening in Japan too – electronics, cameras, even cars (US built Hondas and Toyotas) now build in factories NOT in Japan. Similarly for Mexico – many light manufacturing jobs initially went there are now migrating to China and other parts of Asia where lower wages are found – with corresponding unemployment impacts in Mexico due to job relocation.

    I have an Internet acquaintance from India on a topic of automobiles. As I interact with him via his postings on a car group, I am impressed with the breadth and depth of his education, not only in math, science, physics and chemsitry and other related automotive engineering industry topics (he works for that industry) but also in the humanities and arts as well. The diverse topics of which he has shared his knowledge, training, and insight puts to shame the education of a high percentage of American educated “peers”. That said, he has also described his educational process in India, and I am not sure that process is one that I would subscribe to – but as that Italian Prince once said about ends, justification, and means – – there is room for some consideration. SOMETHING needs to change!

  10. Dave Dahlke says:

    I don’t know how many people actually take the time or make the effort to look at the test that the students are taking. I have gotten test releases from the state education department and I got to tell you, if you haven’t seen these you would be in for a surprise. Whether or not a student gets a test question right, part right or wrong is dependent upon the opinion of the person who is grading the test. It is all a matter of who is grading which test. It is a farce. All questions on a test should reflect the same thing in order to judge the learning of a student. Either the question is right or it is wrong, there should be no gray area. That is not the way the test in Washington State is used. So why is so much emphasis placed on a state test? I believe it is the ego of the education system that makes them want their state to stand out above the other states. However, if each state has its own test there is no way to compare them. Isn’t that a coincidence? No way to compare one state to another. However, the state can use the test however it wants and draw its own conclusions as to whether it reflects learning or not. Once again, another opinion.

    Bob and Ross,
    I also agree with your inputs.

  11. I’ve looked at my state’s (Nevada) exit exam for graduation (older copies) more times than I care to think about. The stumbling block naturally is Math, but thanks to our legislature, it allowed 1300 plus “12 graders” to be given a diploma when it lowered the passing score on the math exam from 304/500 (61%) to 290/500 (58%).

    I liken it to the ASVAB that persons joining the military take. The higher you score, the more possibilities you have open to you, if you score very low, count on doing most of the drudge work in the military (unless you want that as your MOS).

    A story that appeared about social promotion had instructors from a nursing school ask students to convert 73 inches to feet and inches (6ft 1in), needless to say, 90% of the class couldn’t even do this basic math conversion (3-4th grade math).

    Scary, isn’t it?

  12. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “Poor education” ties in with a previous comment by “Cousin Dave” in which he remarked that it takes a year for someone fresh out of school to be a useful employee in the aerospace industry.

    That hasn’t changed since I graduated and joined the aerospace industry in 1963.

    The fact that too few Americans study to become techies has been a subject of discussion since Sputnik in the 1950s.

    One of the things that has changed is this: 40 years ago, companies were willing to consider an employee a long term investment. Spending a year teaching him was part of the cost of doing business. Even though he could go work for someone else, companies counted on treating people right, and inspiring enough loyalty for people to stay long enough to return the investment.

    Now, an employee is considered a disposable drone, to be hired for a project and laid off when the project is over, or when business takes a slight downturn. Big surprise: employees show no loyalty to the employers either. Now companies aren’t willing to take the time to teach anyone anything. Then they whine about how they can’t find people precisely educated so as to do useful work on their current project the day after they are hired.

    You can say this is short-sighted greed in business. Or you can say this is one of those cases where market forces converge on a solution that is no good to anyone in the long run. (Of course, this is heresy, since God, obviously an American and a Republican, decreed whatever big business does is ALWAYS good for society in the long run.)

  13. I worked for 22 years at a steel fabricating plant. I worked my way up to where my job involved algebra and trig (I was in effect an undegreed structural engineer) but only one in ten applicants for shop labor could pass our basic arithmetic test – read a ruler, work with fractions down to 1/8″, add a column of numbers with a calculator.

  14. Heh, well, this doesn’t surprise me at all. A lot of persons seem to think you don’t need a good background in math (basics up to algebra and some geometry) to succeed in the trades (wrong).

    Students who want to not take math/science or courses which deal with critical thinking will find a LOT of career paths closed to them in the future (given that the average person will possibly change career fields these days, it’s good not to put all your eggs in one basket).

    Just my two cents worth.

  15. Jack Tanner says:

    Outsourcer –

    I have a similar job specifically managing outsourced development projects and we project that it will bring down our development costs by about 10% in ’04. That amounts to about $18M for ’04. One thing that people don’t take into consideration is that some projects that are not financially viable on shore are on shore/off shore, which means that some jobs that wouldn’t be done at all, like mine, are done in this on shore/offshore paradigm. I also think that the communication issues are improved and are going to continue to improve. You’re generally right about some of the work being done off shore because some workers aren’t interested in doing it offshore but also the offshore firms have got a tremendous amount of flexibility because they can afford to work at less capacity than is done here because they’re not paying the same rates.

  16. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    Outsourcing: “It ONLY started with manufacturing”.

    Leads one to believe that this country has already outsourced all or most of its manufacturing.

    I’m skeptical. Last I heard, this country is producing more manufactured goods than ever. Can anyone show me where I’m wrong?

  17. jeff wright says:

    I agree with Joanne: the jobs are going elsewhere primarily because of cost considerations. These companies are run by capitalists, after all. It therefore stands to reason that even if American public schools did a 180-degree turn and magically began turning out math and science virtuosos, the bottom line folks would still cut on costs on the jobs with which they felt comfortable doing so. And, bean-counters being bean-counters, they would also off-shore jobs they shouldn’t. Brave new century and all that.

    Having said the above, I will also say that the real scandal is that that high school graduates who don’t intend to go into math or science seem to learn absolutely nothing about these subjects. The younger posters may not fully realize just how far we’ve fallen. Take me: often indifferent student, Los Angeles City schools, HS class of 1962: Algebra 1 and 2, followed by Geometry 1 and 2, followed by Algebra 3 and 4. Each of these math courses was a semester long, in a three-year high school (grade 10-12). Took physics, chemistry and biology, too. This, in a vanilla big city high school curriculum, pre-AP classes and all of that. Preceded of course by algebra and science in junior high school. With all of this, I still seemed to have plenty of time to goof off, chase girls, play sports and annoy my parents. Didn’t watch TV, though. Wasn’t allowed.

    College in the 60s: I was not a math or science major and wanted to focus on other things, so I tested out in the math and science classes I needed to graduate. Today’s students have to take HS level courses in college to even get to the point where they can handle freshman math courses.

    Oh, and English, history and the social sciences are in about the same shape.

    Testing? I also agree with Joanne here. A waste of time, especially when one considers that as more and more kids flunk, the tests will be watered down even more. California’s math exit exam is at the tenth grade level; because the majority can’t pass, they’re already talking about dumbing the test down more and deferring the date when students have to pass. IMO, we have this huge test movement because of frustration and because politicians and the educational establishment need to demonstrate that they’re doing something. They’re on top of this.

    Just what is wrong with the schools? It’s can’t be all society’s fault, despite what a lot of teachers say. Maybe one clue can be found in teacher quality: when I took the CBEST (California teaching test) four years ago, I was scared to death. Heard all about the majority of examinees failing. I passed easily and in fact got my highest scores on the math portion. Hadn’t cracked a math book in 30+ years.

  18. Triticale…your comment: “only one in ten applicants for shop labor could pass our basic arithmetic test – read a ruler, work with fractions down to 1/8”, add a column of numbers with a calculator.”…I knew we had problems with the schools, but this is just horrifying.

    How many of these applicants were high school graduates? Maybe some of them were immigrants from countries where they had been unable to attend school? (he asked hopefully..)

  19. Nope, David, the 9 out of 10 that couldn’t pass the basic math test are most likely home-grown; maybe one or two are illegal Mexicans at most.

    Every high school boy in America knows that only nerds need math; ‘real men’ do sports and chase girls.

  20. D. Cooper says:

    Math teacher/lover of sports/womannizer

    Clair … don’t generalize

  21. D. Cooper says:

    Claire .. to further debunk the stereotype ..anecdotes to be sure!! Have tons more, here’s just four.

    I coached soccer… my best defensive player was the salutatorian, got a 5 on the AP Calc. test and at last report was doing very very well at Cornell in the pre med program.

    Another player on the same team who was the high scorer, was in the top 5 in that same class and went to Dartmouth.

    A girl I know, got a 4 on the AP Calc., was on the Mathletes, was the prom queen, captain of the gymnastics team and voted most popular in her senior class … my daughter … Phi Beta Kappa in college to boot. Graduated summa cum laude from Univ. of Rochester.

    My best friend’s daughter was an awesome soccer and softball player in high school. She was the valedictorian, went to UVA, then NYU Law School. Doing about .75 mil with a Washington law firm as a full partner. (early 30’s)

    Some athletes are actually ‘nerds’ … no need to pigeon hole. It’s actually possible to slide a rule and slide into third. (I know slide rule is old, but it fit here)

    Not all athletes are necessarily ‘nerds’ … no need to pigeon hole. It’s actually possible to slide a rule and slide into third. (I know slide a rule is old, but it fit here)

  22. …One of the things that has changed is this: 40 years ago, companies were willing to consider an employee a long term investment. ..

    Just like Rosie the Riveter and her colleagues were “long-term investments” right after WW2, eh? This is a fertile example of how the Baby Boom and “Greatest” generations have polluted our understanding of how the world works. One of these days, Baby Boomers, the truth’s gonna come out: The ’50 and early ’60s were NOT manna from heaven. People were getting laid off and disposed of, regardless of education level, back then as well.

    My answer for making society more educated and competitive still stands: Make this nation A WHOLE LOT POORER than it is now. It’s hard to make the claim we’re in decline when 70% of households own their housing.