Dr. Norm Matloff On Obama`s Sputnik Moment
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January 28, 2011, 01:35 PM
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Dr. Norm Matloff writes
My heart goes out to President Obama. His next two years will be enormously difficult. Though he called for interparty cooperation in his State of the Union address last night, the fact is that Congress has been in gridlock for years, and I sense it will it intensify through 2012. The Republicans will fight him on every issue, I fear.

But just importantly, Obama can`t even formulate a good solution unless he understands what the problem is in the first place, and in my view, his speech shows that he and his advisers don`t have a clue. Mind you, most politicians in both parties, not to mention many if not most academics, don`t get it either.

As predicted, one of the president`s most central themes last night concerned education and innovation. Yes, Obama said, globalization has sharply changed the rules of economics game, but if handled properly, American innovation, enabled via beefed-up math and science programs in the schools, plus fast-track green cards for STEM foreign students with degrees from U.S. universities, will win the day. I`m sorry, Mr. President, it just ain`t so.

In this message I`ll discuss innovation, international math/science test scores, prestigious high school science contests, and so on, all topics Obama touched on last night. But first and foremost, let`s look at innovation.

I`ve been mentioning for a couple of years now that "innovation" has become THE buzzword in DC and in the related academic circles, largely because industry lobbyists found it to be a great vehicle for fulfilling their hidden agendas (such as the green card proposal). But whether due to political expedience or intellectual laziness, no one seems to have taken a careful look at this innovation panacea.

Suppose for example Intel suddenly invents a miracle processor chip, 10 times as fast and using 1/10 the power of current chips. Intel would likely have the chip manufacture and software development done in, say, Vietnam and Russia. The development of the chip itself, both original and ongoing, would be done largely by H-1Bs in the U.S. This process is NOT a job producer for Americans. And though the new chip would spark the creation of jobs in various other firms, the pattern would be the same—the jobs created would largely be done by foreign nationals, either abroad or in the U.S. Granted, such a pattern would not hold 100%, but the point is that innovation is definitely not the solution to our jobs problem, not in this new era of globalization.

By the way, a new book by the CEO of Dow Chemical warns that if manufacturing goes abroad, a large amount of R&D tends to go with it. Every major tech firm has R&D centers in China and India. Some readers may recall how I once laughed at one analyst who said that GE will send manufacturing abroad but will keep the design of, say, jet engines in the U.S. I noted that GE in fact IS designing jet engines in Bangalore. (And I couldn`t resist cracking, "And this gives new meaning to Ross Perot`s `giant sucking sound.`")

Presidents tend to be rather insulated, but I think the odds are good that Obama is aware of the recent Evergreen Solar case in Massachusetts. Normally Evergreen would be a presidential speechwriter`s dream, combining innovation with greenness—hey, a two-fer! Nice Web page, very impressive. "Our manufacturing process produces 30% less CO2!" "Our panels produce more electricity!" "Smallest carbon footprint!" Etc.

But there is one little itty bitty detail that keeps Evergreen from basking in the light of a State of the Union address: They`re moving to China. Not only are labor costs in China a small fraction of what they are here, but also the Chinese government outbid the Massachusetts government in terms of various subsidies. Indeed, the Obama administration is looking into the possibility that the Chinese subsidies are so lavish that they violate WTO rules. (See here. ) I won`t even go into the issue of the Chinese government requiring that U.S. firms investing in China share their technology, enabling that "investment" to morph into competition in the future.

That`s the innovation issue in a nutshell, folks. The answer to our economic mess is NOT innovation! The only solution is to recognize and remedy the basic problem—the willingness of American firms to locate all, or large sections, of their operations elsewhere in the world, and to hire foreign workers for those jobs they choose to keep in the U.S. Innovation simply won`t cut it, and it is either unconscionable or tragic (depending on whether the action is deliberate) to deceive the American people by claiming that innovation is our way out of this mess.

It`s also unconscionable/tragic to imply that our K-12 schools have a "math/science deficit," and if only we remedy that, why, innovation and prosperity will follow. I may have my own problems with the school system, but the fact is that the much-ballyhooed international test scores, such as PISA, are extremely misleading.

There are various issues that render the test scores noncomparable to ours: Schools in East Asia weed out their weaker students around ninth grade, they tend to cover various topics in earlier grades than we do, they "teach to the test" even more than we do, and so on. But the biggest single difference is that we have a large underclass to deal with, and sadly it remains a major problem.

I`ve explained this before, but now there are excellent visual aids I can employ. Let`s start with the excellent chart in the January 26 Wall Street Journal, It`s a map of the U.S., with the states color-coded for performance, blue for high scores and red for low scores. Well, basically all the red states are ones with large Latino or African-American populations, thus showing at a glance that the problem, unfortunately, stems from our failure to serve our large underclass well educationally. The mainstream kids are fine, as we`ll see below.

A couple of months ago, The Atlantic Monthly reported that, no, it`s not completely an issue of the underclass. Their explanation was very weak, and most importantly, undermined by their own graphic. Go to here. In the drop-down menus next to "COMPARE," choose Washington DC and Hong Kong. Well, guess what—37% of white students in DC scored at a high level in the PISA test, versus only 23.9% of all students in Hong Kong, the latter having one of the highest levels of performance in the world in PISA. You`ll find similar results for Taiwan.

Yes, the white kids in DC tend to come from well-educated families, sure (just as Shanghai, the only site for PISA testing in China, is by far the richest spot in China), but the salient point is that overall scores don`t mean much in the case of the U.S., and thus the international comparisons are misleading.

I`ve mentioned before the research of Professor David Berliner ("Averages That Hide The True Extremes," Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2001) that showed that those "blue states," if considered separate nations, would be second in the world only to Singapore in science scores. Again, it`s sad that this difference exists, but the point is that our mainstream kids are doing fine.

I`ll return to the test score issue below, but while we`re discussing our American youngsters, let`s look at Obama`s remark last night, "We need to teach our kids that it`s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair." I`ve discussed before why the science fairs are irrelevant, and even destructive in the cynicism they encourage for gaming the system (see But the subject has now taken on a certain urgency, as it has apparently captivated Obama.

Texas high school student and science fair winner Amy Chyao was invited by Obama to his State of the Union Address, even having her sit with the First Lady. She had already met him as a prize winner of the fair. According to a Dallas Morning News report on Jan. 24 Obama was so impressed with Amy that he kept talking about her for days after he met her. He even mentioned her in a speech when he traveled to another city.

I`ve no doubt that Ms. Chyao is an outstanding student with energy that would make Tiger Mom look like a slacker, but the blunt truth is that these science contests are basically shams. Though the image projected is that of brilliant teenagers coming up with breakthrough ideas, the actuality is that of teenagers working as helpers in the labs of famous university scientists. The kid joins the professor`s team in a project already in progress, with the ideas already in place. The professor finds a piece of the project that can be done without much background, and then the kid does the leg work, patiently going through hundreds of hours of boring lab work.

See for example with a relevant excerpt being

Aditi Ramakrishnan, a semifinalist who researched toxicity of nanoparticles in cosmetics, says she would have no project if it were not for the daily help she received from a team of nearby Stony Brook professors. "I`m only 17," she said. "I didn`t have the background to create the experiment. I didn`t know how to use the equipment. I couldn`t create the hypothesis."

Martin Rocek, a Stony Brook physics professor, picked a math project for Neal Wadhwa of Ward Melville. "It happened there was a new development in the field that was not exceedingly technical," says Professor Rocek, who gave Neal private geometry tutorials and suggested several calculations to work out. Those calculations broke new ground in the super-manifold field, but Neal says that at first, he didn`t grasp what his answers meant. "Professor Rocek told me the significance of what I`d found," he said. "I didn`t know."

A reader comment on an article reporting on Ms. Chyao`s prizewinning project sums it up:
Karim Stuart

I spent 7 years in grad school working on photodynamic therapy, specifically in the area of organic chemistry, making the drugs that do what she describes in the above article. When I heard about her, I immediately wanted to know what a 16 year-old kid had accomplished in one summer ­ that I didn??€�t in 7 years. Now I understand, she is just reporting the work of a group of scientists who have been working really hard at this for many years.

Again, these kids are outstanding students, no doubt about it. They have to cogently explain their research to a group of judges, a very difficult and daunting task. But Obama is wrong in assuming they`re child geniuses, especially with the implication that they will provide the innovation he is counting on.

Now, concerning Obama`s proposal to give fast track green cards to STEM foreign students with degrees from U.S. universities: Obama`s phrasing (sadly, exactly from the list of talking points of industry lobbyists) was "It doesn`t make sense to grant these students graduate degrees and then send them back home to compete with us." Well, the correct comment would be, "It doesn`t make sense to add these people to the STEM labor pool, when we already have so many STEM experts with advanced degrees who are unemployed or underemployed." And as Prof. Saxenian`s research at UCB has shown, even those who do stay here often contribute expertise, investment funding and the like to firms in their home countries anyway. Mr. Obama should also find it troubling that the reason we have so many foreign students in our university graduate programs is that the National Science Foundation, a key federal agency, actually planned it this way, with the goal of flooding the market in order to hold down PhD salaries; see for instance

One more point on the PISA test, and the stellar performance of the Shanghai students on it: I was in Shanghai two weeks ago (also last June). It is a very, very dynamic place, with for example a subway system that`s growing at the astounding rate of one or two new lines a year. There are several excellent universities there, also showing the same dynamism.

But Obama hit the nail on the head when, referring obliquely to China, he said, "our [American] students don`t just memorize equations, but answer questions like `What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?`, referring to the stifling of creativity that comes from China`s rote-memory educational system. (The Chinese government has been very concerned as well.) I of course have been writing about China`s ??Â?«?©Â´Â¨ ("stuff the duck") approach for years, but I was astonished in a visit I made to a large bookstore in Shanghai.

At least 20% of the floor space was devoted to test preparation! In a U.S. bookstore, you would typically find two or three shelves of SAT practice books, but the Shanghai store had rows and rows of this "genre." (Tons of books on learning English too, by the way, ranging in level from kids to adults.)

So, I thumbed through a few of the test prep books on math, and was shocked to find there were NO WORD PROBLEMS. Everything was algebraic manipulation, no real life application at all, none of the problems like "Johnnie is two years older than Jill, and next year will be 20% older than she..." All the problems were algebraic manipulations, using little tricks, some of which I`d never heard of, such as a "five corner method." Do enough of these for practice, and you can expect to do well on the tests, including the gao kao university entrance exam—but you won`t know anything. Chen Lixin, an engineering professor in China, has complained that this "results in the phenomenon of high scores and low ability."

Upon returning to the U.S., I mentioned this to a colleague who is originally from Shanghai, and he confirmed the lack of application problems, and commented, "That`s why grad students from China have such a hard time in the U.S." He also sheepishly admitted that he didn`t remember what the five-corner method was. :-)

My point is that I hope Obama meant it when he said that "memorizing equations" is not the route we want to go in. As I mentioned, the Chinese government realizes it`s wrong too, though it will be quite difficult for them to turn around a millenia-old cultural mentality.

Obama also mentioned China`s supercomputer, but curiously neglected to mention that it is constructed from American chips. (I`ve discussed before why it`s a nonissue to begin with; see here.

I apologize for the length of this piece, but I hope that you agree that these issues—and most importantly, proper understanding of them—are absolutely central. Arguably we are at a crossroads, and unfortunately the president chose the wrong path.