Tom Luce has a passion for education reform. He is co-founder of the National Center for Educational Accountability (NCEA) and founder of Just for the Kids.
Luce recently spoke at The Philanthropy Roundtable’s K-12 Education Breakthrough Group meeting in Dallas, “Quantum Leaps: Boosting Math & Science Education.” He addressed the danger America faces of losing its innovation leadership position in the world because of the dearth of scientists and engineers.
As chief of staff of the Texas Select Committee of Public Education, Luce helped engineer one of the first major public school reforms in 1984. He has gone on to serve as chairman of the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission, chief justice pro tempore of the Texas Supreme Court, and Texas delegate to the Education Commission of the States.
Luce served most recently as assistant secretary for the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.
In 1995, Luce wrote the book that defined his education philosophy, Now or Never—How We Can Save Our Public Schools, which outlines a plan for education reform that calls for broader support of public education. His newest book on public education, Do What Works: How Proven Practices Can Improve America’s Public Schools, was published in December 2004.
Luce has served on the boards of multiple charitable organizations, including the Texas Education Reform Caucus, Education is Freedom, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.
He is the recipient of the Center for Non-Profit Management Social Entrepreneur Award, the Dallas Historical Society Excellence in Community Service Award, and the CASA Award for Service to Children, among others.
An attorney since 1965, Luce is the founding and managing partner of Hughes & Luce, LLP, with offices in Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.
I want to talk to you all about the math and science crisis that we face in this country.
Recently I was privileged to have lunch with the secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, and Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary of commerce. As a CEO born in Cuba but educated in this country, Secretary Gutierrez knows a lot about competitiveness, and he said, “Well, secretary, in my mind it’s very simple. We won.”
“Okay, what does that exactly mean?” Secretary Spellings asked.
Secretary Gutierrez replied, “Well, we won the Cold War, freedom prevailed, capitalism prevailed, and we’ve trained three billion new competitors. That’s good news; that is exactly what we hoped would happen. But it means we’re in a new competition that will last perhaps as long as the Cold War. We’re in a position where our economic leadership, our standard of living, our way of life, is challenged across the globe.”
This is great for the world. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the fact of the matter is we have trained three billion new competitors, at a minimum. That is going to change what happens in this country if we do not change what happens in math and science education.
All you have to do is look at the history of this country to understand that we are the economic leader we are today because of innovation. I can say that because I had nothing to do with innovation: I’m a lawyer. But, fortunately, other people did. When you look at the Erie Canal, the Panama Canal, the transistor, the internet, the interstate highway system—just look at the economic history of our country and what you will see is we were always the innovators. We were always creating new industry. We were never, except for a very short period of time in our history, the low-cost provider of labor. We always wanted more than that; we wanted to be at the top of the scale. And that’s why people have flocked to this country for two hundred years.
But today, this innovation leadership is being challenged. Three decades ago, we ranked third worldwide in the relative number of scientists and engineers that we produce. Today we’re seventeenth.
Secretary Spellings has a wonderful way of communicating the problem. She noted that when then-governor Bush first talked about every child reading at grade level by the end of the third grade, every head in the audience would nod. Everybody understood the power of reading. Today, if we said to an audience, “You know what, every child in America must take and pass algebra in the eighth grade,” every head might shake. Most parents would say, “Well, now you’re meddling. How in the world am I going to get Johnny to do that?”
But that’s the world we live in today. When I was a teenager, you could drop out of high school if you had a strong back. You could work on an oil rig somewhere, and you could have a good job. You could provide for your family, retire, buy a bass boat, and have a good life. Today, there are not a lot of jobs on oil rigs, and if you want to be an automobile mechanic, you have to be computer literate. You have to understand algebra, and you have to read technical manuals. So we’re not just talking about the next generation of Nobel Prize winners, although that’s critical. We have a quantity and a quality problem, and part of it is this culture. As the secretary would go on to say, using her algebra example, “You know, I’m a soccer mom. I go to soccer games, I talk to the mothers. Before long somebody will brag to you that they can’t balance their checkbook.” Nobody says “I can’t read” and laughs it off. They will try and hide that from you. But here we brag that we’re not very good at math.
In China, the heroes and the celebrities are the Bill Gates-like entrepreneurs of the world. Here it’s Britney Spears. So we not only have an education establishment to shift; we have a public to shift. The public must understand that in today’s world it doesn’t matter whether you are good at math and science or whether you got a job as a lawyer, a PR person or a consultant. The future is going to depend on analytical skills. Even if you’re not going to be a mathematician or a scientist, you’re going have to think critically, which is what you learn from math and science. So, we don’t have any choice in this country but to have a goal of every child taking and passing algebra in the eighth grade. China’s goal is to have ninety percent of its population graduated from high school with calculus, biology, chemistry, et cetera. That’s the competition we face, and that presents serious challenges for our country and for our education system.
Tom Friedman wrote an article recently about Uruguay, now an oasis of outsourcing from India. Friedman said the outsourcing demonstrated that “competition is only a mouse-click away.” Today, Indian businesses are hiring engineers in Uruguay who work for the Indian company by computer. Architects working in Dallas have drawings done in Buenos Aires. That’s the world in which we live. You can’t say, “Stop, world, I want to get off.” Therefore, we have no choice but to confront this problem.
Now I want to challenge every philanthropist, if you really buy into this as a crisis, to do an unnatural act: collaborate more on proven models and take them to national scale. This country is filled with individual pilot programs that are very good. But we will not move the needle unless we raise programs to national scale in order to educate 55 million kids. It will not happen.
One of the assignments I had in the federal government was to become director of something created by Congress called “The Academic Competitiveness Council.” The Council was asked to study the various math and science education programs already offered by federal agencies. We found there were 209 programs, and a total of $3.7 billion had been spent. Most of the programs benefited about 100 children. Most of them were pilots. 127 of them said they had been evaluated for results. Of the 127 evaluated, only 26 were the subject of strict scrutiny and evaluation, and of the 26, three had produced positive results. So there went $3.7 billion and, in the meantime, we know there are programs that work. You’ve heard of them, you’ve seen them, but we’re not taking those programs to scale. I know there’s somebody who loves every single one of those 209 programs. You love the program you’re working with, and I’m sure it’s a wonderful program. But if we don’t somehow agree among ourselves that we’re going to pick two or three things and make them happen, then we’re not going to improve either the quantity issue or the quality issue.
I don’t think we have any choice as a country but to recognize that this is a serious national problem. I think it is a question of world economic leadership in the future. That is not a rant against immigration. We need more foreign-born engineers. I was close friends with Jerry Junkins, the CEO of Texas Instruments, before he passed away prematurely. He always talked about the vast amount of brain power that Texas Instruments harvested here in Richardson from foreign-born engineers. We need to keep them here, not let them go home. Today, you can come here from India, receive a superb education, return home, and have a good job. Your salary on paper may not be the same as it is in the United States, but your standard of living will be just as good. Many, many major countries, and this country, are doing the recruitment and development overseas that we used to do only here. This is not a Nike slave-labor issue on sneakers; this is about innovation. Are we going to retain innovation leadership in our country?
Somehow this message has to penetrate: if innovation leadership is to grow, math and science have to be understood by the public as a critical issue. We must decide that it’s enough of a national priority to raise things to scale. Unless we do that, we’re never going to solve the problem.
Let me make one last closing comment about Texas, specifically. You all have probably heard of state demographer Steve Murdoch. His latest projection is that if we continue the current pace of educational progress by our Hispanic students and our black students, in thirty-five years the average income of every Texan will be $6,500 less than it is today, without even taking inflation into account. If that happens, you cannot pay enough taxes to make the state work.
That is a fact that we must take into account and we must act upon immediately. For those who despair, I can take you to school districts along the border of Texas and Mexico and show you individual schools where 95% of the kids are at true grade level in two years after coming to this country. What just infuriates me is that, in my mind—given the models we know that work, given the schools we know that work—it is no longer debatable. “We can’t do that, those kids can’t learn, you can’t do this, we don’t have parental involvement, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” We have proven that it can be done and, therefore, if we don’t do it for every child, it is simply a lack of public will.
I challenge each of you to leave firmly feeling: 1) It must be done. 2) It can be done. 3) We have to collaborate to take these solutions to national scale.