Since when did the conversation about education in the United States morph from leaving no child behind to finding and keeping science and engineering college majors? Answer: Since President Obama figured out that linking education to a skill-based economy was the best way to call attention to an issue normally relegated to the third tier of politics.
Last year's State of the Union address marked a noted departure from the president's previous speech--he emphasized higher education and barely touched on pre-K through 12 issues. Previously he had touted innovations in teacher training and student achievement.
This year, a big part of Obama's speech will focus on overhauling the nation's immigration system. One of his biggest selling points for his immigration plan is the economic growth that will come from allowing highly skilled foreign college graduates and entrepreneurs to remain in the country. These are, after all, the job creators. The more controversial parts of Obama's immigration plan--how to structure a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or special visas for agriculture workers--will be couched with less detail and lots of wiggle room.
The dearth of science, technology, and engineering college graduates is bad enough that lawmakers from both political parties feel comfortable asking to bring in more skilled foreign workers. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., last month introduced legislation to increase the number of visas available to skilled foreign workers. No one expects that bill to proceed on its own in the Senate when Obama is seeking something more comprehensive, but clearly the lawmakers want to call attention to the issue.
The bottom line is that skills sell. In politics, that's golden.
What happens to our home-grown kids? A recent survey from information technology association CompTIA, Youth Opinions of Careers in IT, found that while 97 percent of teens and young adults report loving or liking technology, only 18 percent report a definitive interest in a career in technology.
College is also out of reach cost-wise for a lot of families. Employers and college administrators alike bemoan the lack of shorter and cheaper ways to get people up to speed tech-wise through associate's degrees or certificate programs. Expect Obama to include a line about community colleges in his State of the Union speech, and to repeat previous complaints about the cost of college. Again, the selling point is about the skills.
How can skills be integrated into conversations about pre-K through 12 education? What can government do to encourage kids to be more interested in math and science? Is there any danger to looking at education through the lens of worker skill development? What are the advantages of encouraging foreign students to come to the United States for keeps? Why are there fewer American college students pursuing science and technology majors?