Gates to Congress: Improve Math, Science Education

In testimony before the Committee on Science and Technology at the United States House of Representatives Wednesday morning, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates implored Congress and the President to "act decisively" to ensure that the country maintain its global leadership position in technology innovation.

Gates's testimony focused on three key themes: education, research and immigration.

Fueling K-12 and Post-Secondary Education
Gates said the United States faces a crippling shortfall in scientists and engineers and that the private sector alone can't solve the problem. He said the legislature must follow through on the America COMPETES Act of 2007 ("America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science") to fund the educational initiatives of the law because only the government has the resources needed "to effect change on a broad scale," according to a statement released by Microsoft. He added, "If we don't reverse these trends, our competitive advantage will continue to erode. Our ability to create new high-paying jobs will suffer."

The America COMPETES Act contains provisions for training new teachers in STEM subjects and to provide additional resources to science, technology, engineering and teachers through the National Science Foundation.

"Like many others, I have deep misgivings about the state of education in the United States," Gates told Congress. "Too many of our students fail to graduate from high school with the basic skills they will need to succeed in the 21st Century economy, much less prepared for the rigors of college and career. Although our top universities continue to rank among the best in the world, too few American students are pursuing degrees in science and technology. Compounding this problem is our failure to provide sufficient training for those already in the workforce."

He cited low graduation rates -- particularly among underrepresented groups -- along with a low level of college preparedness as two troubling factors in education impacting students. He said that fewer than 40 percent of graduating high school students are prepared to enter college without taking remedial courses in material "they should have learned in high school."

He added: "Our record on high school math and science education is particularly troubling. International tests indicate that U.S. fourth graders rank among the top students in the world in science and above average in math. By eighth grade, they have moved closer to the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students score near the bottom of all industrialized nations. As a result, too many U.S. students enter college without even the basic skills needed to pursue a degree in science and engineering."

He stressed three factors in improving the quality of education in secondary schools:

  1. Measurements of progress, which he said are sorely lacking;
  2. Alignment of state standards to the demands of higher education (which is not presently happening); and
  3. Improvements to "support, working conditions, and incentives necessary for teachers to be truly effective."

In higher education, he said, the quality is there, with the United States boasting some of the best colleges and universities in the world. But too few students are being graduated with STEM degrees.

Immigration Reform Could Alleviate 'Grave' Situation
Education, however, is only part of the issue, according to Gates. He said that improving education is one thing, but keeping those we educate in this country once they've been graduated is another issue altogether -- one that must be addressed through immigration reform.

"At a time when talent is the key to economic success, it makes no sense to educate people in our universities, often subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, and then insist that they return home," he in a statement released to coincide with his testimony. "To address the shortage of scientists and engineers, we must...reform our education system and our immigration policies. If we don't, American companies simply will not have the talent they need to innovate and compete."

In his testimony, he blamed the situation on arbitrary H-1B caps.

"Congress's failure to pass high-skilled immigration reform has exacerbated an already grave situation. For example, the current base cap of 65,000 H-1B visas is arbitrarily set and bears no relation to the U.S. economy's demand for skilled professionals. For fiscal year 2007, the supply ran out more than four months before that fiscal year even began. For fiscal year 2008, the supply of H-1B visas ran out on April 2, 2007, the first day that petitions could be filed and [six] months before the visas would even be issued. Nearly half of those who sought a visa on that day did not receive one."

He cited three reforms that could make a difference in alleviating the situation:

  1. Extended Optional Practical Training periods that would allow students to remain in the country longer after graduation, from 12 months to 29 months;
  2. Streamlining the path to permanent resident status for highly skilled workers;
  3. An increase on the cap on visas and the elimination of "per-country limits" to meet the near-term need for qualified workers by American industry.

"I want to emphasize that the shortage of scientists and engineers is so acute that we must do both: reform our education system and reform our immigration policies," Gates told the House committee. "This is not an either-or proposition. If we do not do both, U.S. companies simply will not have the talent they need to innovate and compete."

Federal Funding for Research
Gates also called on the committee to increase federal research funding and to provide incentives for private-sector research and development. Funding for basic scientific research has stagnated or declined in the United States -- dropping by half as a percentage of GDP since 1970 for physical sciences and engineering research.

"As a nation," Gates told the committee, "our goal should be to increase funding for basic scientific research by 10 percent annually over the next seven years. We also need to ensure that the private sector has greater visibility into the status and progress of federally funded research projects so that companies can collaborate more effectively with universities and other publicly funded researchers."

He said Congress should also reenact and make permanent the R&D tax credit, which expired last year, to provide incentives for long-term, true private-sector research.

He concluded, "I believe this country stands at a crossroads. For decades, innovation has been the engine of prosperity in this country. Now, economic progress depends more than ever on innovation. And the potential for technology innovation to improve lives has never been greater. If we do not implement policies like those I have outlined today, the center of progress will shift to other nations that are more committed to the pursuit of technical excellence. If we make the right choices, the United States can remain the global innovation leader that it is today."

About the Author

Dave Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's educational technology online publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at [email protected].