An old adage says that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. A Microsoft executive’s recent call for more federal government spending on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education fits this definition to a tee. What’s the real solution to the dismal status of American education, particularly when it comes to the kinds of technical fields necessary for a skilled IT and data center work force?
News Flash: The Education Bubble Will Burst
According to USDebtClock.org, student loan debt in the U.S. is quickly approaching $1 trillion, exceeding even credit-card debt by a substantial margin (some 10%). According to CollegeData.com (“What’s the Price Tag for a College Education?”), “a ‘moderate’ college budget for an in-state public college for the 2011–2012 academic year averaged $21,447. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $42,224.” For a four-year college, that’s anywhere from about $85,000 to $170,000 per student. And in an economy where recent graduates are having an increasingly difficult time finding a job, these numbers are even more dreadful. For some students, particularly those who also incur graduate-school debt, the result could be a lifetime of debt—and a debt that is notoriously difficult to get rid of by other means.
The system has all the makings of a bubble, and one that cannot help but burst. The only question is how soon. The situation for K-12 education is slightly different, but the economics are similar. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (“Policy Basics: Where Do Our State Tax Dollars Go?”), “About one-fourth of state spending on average, or about $260 billion, goes toward public [K-12] education.” State debt—although still dwarfed by the federal debt—resides at around $1 trillion. The difference in K-12 education is that it’s “free”—meaning no one (unless they look) sees the cost by way of taxes. Everybody has access to the system, and everybody pays the taxes whether they use it or not.
The results? PBS (“Math, Science, Reading Scores Show U.S. Schools Slipping Behind”) cites U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects [on the PISA standardized tests]. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”
So, how’s all that spending working out?
If Microsoft had followed the business model of the state (wantonly throw other people’s money at a problem and hope the problem goes away), it would be far from a household name. It certainly would have no share of the computer OS market. Nevertheless, CIO.com (“Microsoft Calls for $5 Billion Investment in U.S. Education”) reports that Microsoft general counsel and executive vice president Brad Smith has called for “Congress [to] invest $5 billion in the country’s education system—particularly in math, science and technology education—over the next 10 years and pay for it with increased fees on high-skill immigration.” In other words, impose tariffs of a sort to fund more spending into the black hole of U.S. education.
Is this insanity? Well, how far has two centuries of ever-increasing government control of and spending on education brought us?
Microsoft should look to its own model of success (at least idealistically): compete for business, provide a superior product (or, at least, one that people prefer to buy) and engage in voluntary commerce. If it worked for Microsoft, why can’t it work for education? Private education is generally known to be better than public: just look at the actions (not words) of politicians, like President Barack Obama.
At this point, one hears all the howls of how certain children will be left behind: what will poor families do if the government doesn’t control education? Well, how is state-controlled education working for poor families these days? Are the Chicago teachers—who, incidentally, are making on average between about $71,000 and $76,000 annually (and that’s not for a full 12 months of work, like most people must do to earn their salaries)—providing a commensurately high level of education for their students? The recent teachers’ strike was largely a fuss over teacher evaluations: something that wouldn’t even be an issue if teachers were actually doing a good job overall.
So, yes, Microsoft is advocating utter insanity.
What to Do Instead
Instead of calling for charity by proxy, Microsoft could consider implementing an apprenticeship program for young people that focuses on learning real, marketable skills. If the company believes there are returns to be had on investments in education, what is it waiting for? Why use other people’s money? Five billion dollars over 10 years amounts to $500 million per year: why not ask the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation for funding? A private company like Microsoft could implement a stellar apprenticeship (or other style of education) program with that kind of money. Why waste it on an institution—federal and state governments—that are known to be spendthrifts?
For the U.S. to excel in STEM areas, the first task is to get government out of the education business. It is a failure. It’s time to move on. Stop trying to tinker with it. Unfortunately, this is something that won’t happen soon.
Companies in the data center and IT sectors should look beyond traditional schooling if they want skilled employees. With the widespread availability of powerful computers—and the cloud—a dismal state-run education system is no excuse for a lack of talent. Everything one needs to know to be an outstanding data center designer, software programmer, technician or almost anything else is available for free (or at a low cost) on the Internet. Companies should consider how to invest in future employees through their own educational systems, via apprenticeships, mentoring, internships and other means. To be sure, the myriad logistics would need to be worked out, but the alternative is to continue taxing the economy into recession to fund, among other things, a failed education system.
The data center and IT sectors—of all industries—have no excuse to whine about education. They build and (to some extent) govern the ultimate tool of education: the Internet. Microsoft knows the power of putting relatively inexpensive tools into the hands of consumers: how much work is accomplished because Word and Excel, for instance, are available relatively cheaply? And for those who don’t want to pay anything, there’s OpenOffice. And the Internet has innumerable free (and paid) resources to teach people how to use these tools. So why the incessant calls for dumping more money in a system that is inefficient, ineffective and even destructive?
Science, technology, engineering and math are areas that have seen amazing progress over the past century—and even the past decade. Although data centers seem commonplace, they are actually an amazing feat of engineering at a variety of levels, from the silicon that composes microchips up to the interconnects among servers and even surrounding infrastructure that keeps everything running. These advances have come in spite of the current education system, not because of it. It’s time to stop the insanity.
Photo courtesy of Sean MacEntee