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Political Fix by Gloria Penner

As soon as I walked into the meeting room at Biogen Idec, I knew I was in a powerhouse of personalities. More than 50 leaders from San Diego's technology companies, foundations, universities, and school systems were there by invitation for lunch and to talk about a San Diego problem. At issue: how to maintain a flourishing science and technology sector in a San Diego where K-12 math and science education is clearly suffering .

Materials for the event had been circulated to the participants days before and told a sad story . For example, the science scores of eighth grade students in California rank near the bottom of all 50 states. Only Mississippi has worse scores. Moreover, San Diego's high school graduation rate among the 10 largest districts in California is in the bottom half. And, as colleges and employers acknowledge, the gap between how well high schools prepare their students and what those colleges and employers require is growing.

So, presented with rather alarming information, leaders, including those from the U.S. Navy, Cox Communications, PacBell, Biogen Idec, Qualcomm, SDSU, UCSD, and several school districts, wrestled with how the community could best respond to a situation which will limit lives, careers, and San Diego's future as a thriving center for high-tech and biotech industries.

We already have evidence that San Diego's high tech and science-based companies need to look outside the United States for people qualified to fill those jobs because San Diego's kids don't have the skills to work in the modern, technological world. This foreign talent is caught up in the current immigration disconnect so that when their H-1B visas expire (which allow foreign workers in for a limited time period), companies lose their workers. Then those workers go home and bring all their newly learned information with them to their native country. Or U.S. companies go where the talent is to set up their research and development departments. So we are not just exporting jobs, but whole industries. Is it any wonder that America's overall competitiveness as asssessed by the World Economic Forum in Geneva has plummeted from first place to sixth place in a single year?  

Martha Dennis
April 13, 2008 at 09:31 PM
I was also at the Biogen Idec meeting and wanted to include some of the ideas that came out of the conversations in which I was involved. As you noted in the blog, the basic reality in education is the we "can't have a system that's better than it's worst teacher". The big question to address in dealing with the failure of our educational system is how to get quality people to opt into the teaching profession. The obvious answers are: 1) Improve pay and incentives - our young people have learned to "follow the money" and currently the money's NOT in education, and 2) Redefine teaching careers - teaching is currently looked upon as a dead-end profession - once you're in it, there's no way out - you're stuck and branded as a teacher for the rest of your professional life. So, what are some approaches to achieving these basic changes? One is to create innovative ways to remove the barriers between the world of education and the corporate world, for example: (A) Encourage the corporate world to take advantage of talent in the education world by considering educators for corporate roles - a great salesperson of knowledge in the classroom may make a great salesperson in the corporate market - a great school principal could make a terrific VP of operations, etc. (B) Encourage educational systems to enable the utilization of corporate expertise and talent; there are many corporate employees who would love to use their talents in the classroom with young people as well as in the corporate halls with adults - today there are too many barriers in school systems to allow utilization of this willing talent in classrooms. Another approach is to apply political pressure to urge federal and state governments to recognize the economic crisis our country is about to suffer as a result of our poor science and technical education. This recognition should drive government to re-focus on supporting significant improvement of science education as we did in the late '50s in response to Sputnik.

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