Private Sector Must Invest in U.S. Education System

Despite leading the world in technology education, the United States is struggling to extend the benefits to everyone, according to Robert Gates, former U.S secretary of defense.

By Paul Gillin

By Paul Gillin February 09, 2021

At a time of intense political partisanship in the U. S., Dr. Robert Gates’ resume serves as a reminder that competence matters.

Gates, whose more than 50-year career in public service and education spanned eight U. S. presidents, is the only U. S. Secretary of Defense ever to be retained by a newly elected president, having been appointed by George W. Bush and asked to stay by Barack Obama. Gates also 27 years in the CIA and the National Security Council and was also Director of Central Intelligence under President George H. W. Bush.

He has been awarded the National Security Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal and the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal three times. He is also a three-time recipient of the CIA’s highest award, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal. On his final day as Secretary of Defense, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor.

But Gates, who earned his doctorate in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University in 1974, has always had a passion for education. He was the 22nd president of Texas A&M University from 2002 through 2006 and currently serves as chancellor of the College of William & Mary, his alma mater.

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In an interview for The Forecast, Gates is joined by Anja Manuel, an Asia specialist and co-founder of Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel. Their strategic consulting firm helps US companies navigate international markets. They explained that the United States has ranked in the middle of the pack for secondary education quality for several years. Yet, our colleges and universities draw the best students from around the world. This is a precarious situation.

What do you think is the reason for this discrepancy?

Gates: There are two main reasons. One is we have a very diversified public school arrangement. Every town or county has its own school system, and each has a great deal of independence. School districts like to do their own thing.

The second reason is the diversity of school populations. If you look at the top-performing countries in public education worldwide, they include countries with homogenous populations like Sweden, Finland, Singapore and Taiwan. In contrast, there are 140 languages spoken in the Denver school system alone.

The U.S. has the challenge of educating a broad range of people speaking different languages, many with parents at home who don’t speak English. We look at these global lists and flagellate ourselves, but we have challenges in our public schools that other countries don’t have. Funding varies widely as well. Schools are often funded through property taxes, meaning that more impoverished areas don’t get the same resources as those in affluent areas.

What is the role of government versus the private sector in achieving a better balance?

Gates: This is an area where our federal system is a disadvantage. The federal government won’t take kindly to doing something for one set of students they don’t do for others. And it’s hard to find solutions outside of individual states that level the playing field.

Data shows that girls perform at least as well as boys in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines in the early years of their education but are significantly less likely to pursue STEM-related advanced degrees and professions. Why do you believe this disparity exists?

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Anja Manuel: That’s a U.S. and, to some extent, a European phenomenon, which suggests that the problem is cultural: There are fewer role models and limited examples of female scientists in movies and pop culture. There have also been studies that show that girls are often graded harder in math than boys, and that has a devastating effect.

Interestingly, the discrepancy in STEM performance for girls who go to all-girls school is much less than in dual-gender education. My fourth-grade daughter just switched schools. She used to hate math and now she loves it.

What should technology professionals and businesses do to address it?

Manuel: Highlight your amazing female technical talent. Talk to kids in the high schools and junior high schools. Tell some positive stories because there are so many negatives stories about sexual harassment in these professions.

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My son’s elementary school was adopted by Boeing. They sent people into the school to talk about the applications of math and science. A preponderance of those people were women who could be role models for the girls.

Dr. Gates, as Chancellor of the College of William & Mary and former president of Texas A&M University you are keenly aware of the spiraling costs of higher education. Do you believe there is a solution to this problem? What should government’s role be, if any?

Gates: Between the Morrill Land-Grant Acts in 1862 and later the GI bill in 1944 - both of which were passed during wartime - public higher education used to be considered something that benefited the country as a whole. Therefore, the cost was borne primarily by the states.

That begin to change 25 years ago. Since then, public higher education has been increasingly seen as a consumer good to be paid for by the person who receives it. When I went to William & Mary in the 60s nearly half the operating costs were paid by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today it’s about 10%. And the same thing has happened across the country. As Medicaid costs have skyrocketed along with pressure to cut taxes, the resources for college have gone down.

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I’m not sure you can turn that around. The consequence is that in most universities there’s a huge emphasis on financial assistance. When I was at Texas A&M [from 1999 to 2006], 77% of the students received some kind of financial assistance.

Numerous plans have been advanced recently to forgive student debt on a large scale. What is your opinion of the merits of these plans?

Gates: I think it’s important for students to have skin in the game, but I would do it differently: If you want to go to medical school you pay for it yourself, but if you get through your residency or go into public service, I will forgive all the loans. You could use that as an inducement to get people to pursue careers where there are shortages.

What long-term impact do you believe the pandemic will have on the quality of education in this country?

Gates: This year will be pretty much a loss for most students. Some teachers are good at [remote learning] but most aren’t. School districts are going to have to figure out how to get training for teachers to use technology more productively in their classroom.

I believe in-person learning is critical, but I think the pandemic has accelerated the understanding that there are ways to enhance education that involve both in-person and remote learning. Teachers can use technology to differentiate the progress of individual students, help those who aren’t moving as fast as well as those at the top end to reach beyond.

Do you see any positive changes in education that the pandemic has prompted?

Gates: One of the positives is that there is a pretty broad recognition of the disparity created by whether or not you have access to reliable broadband. I think there’ll be an impetus to extend broadband to rural and underserved areas.

I also think it’s been wake-up call that there is a place for technology in the classroom regardless of what you’re teaching. The president of William & Mary is also an entrepreneur. Her specialty is Shakespeare and she’s done a lot to put Shakespeare online. So the pandemic could create demand for the use of technology in classrooms that was proceeding really slowly.

Manuel: It hope this leads more differentiated education. If kids are ahead of their classes, instead of keeping them at the same school there’s support for letting them go as far as they want. You’re no longer teaching at the level of your grade but to students’ individual levels.

Paul Gillin is a contributing writer. He is the former editor-in-chief of Computerworld and founding editor of TechTarget. He’s the author of five books about social media and online communities. Find him on Twitter @pgillin.

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