Chancellor James B. Milliken

Chancellor James B. Milliken

Appointed to start on June 1, 2014, James B. Milliken serves as Chancellor of The City University of New York. ยป

Reflections on the Current State of Education in America

June 18, 2007 | Speeches and Testimony

Thank you so much. I know that everyone in this room joins me in thanking Dr. Pola Rosen for her continued good work in encouraging the very best in educational practices, both through Education Update and through wonderful events such as this gathering.

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners. I know this award represents many hours of creativity, hard work, and dedication. We owe you a great debt of gratitude. You remind us that no matter what else we do in education, we cannot succeed without very smart and very talented teachers and administrators.

I’d also like to acknowledge a CUNY trustee who is here with us this morning, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. And congratulations to George Weiss, this year’s Distinguished Leader in Education Award recipient, on a very well-deserved honor.

When I reflect on the state of education in our country today, I see two very alarming trends. First, I see fewer students enrolling and succeeding in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Equally worrisome, I see very few students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds–especially (male) students of African-American and Latino descent–achieving success in those disciplines.

We should all be very concerned about what will happen in the future if these trends are not reversed. I do not exaggerate when I say that this is a matter of national security. I have a few thoughts about what is happening, and how we might address it, and this morning I want to share these reflections with you.

I am by no means alone in my concerns. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for one, has characterized the overall situation as a “quiet crisis,” one that has been building, gradually, for decades. In the simplest terms, this crisis “stems from the gap between the nation’s growing need for scientists, engineers, and other technically skilled workers, and its production of them.” We ignore this gap, says Dr. Jackson, “at our peril.”

For just one example of how these trends really do have an impact on our national security, let’s consider statements by an official from the Department of Defense, Michael W. Wynne. Two years ago he noted that we “already are having trouble filling positions” in science and engineering. Nine percent of openings in industry–openings, he pointed out, already funded by the federal government–remained unfilled because of the difficulty of locating “qualified people who also can make it through the clearance process.” (“The Department of Defense hires almost half of all federal scientists and engineers outright, as well as being responsible for many of the private sector jobs in science and technology.”)

How have we arrived at this place? How has this crisis grown?

Frankly, we’ve taken our global leadership for granted. We haven’t attended sufficiently to some alarming changes. I won’t list them all. What I want to focus on today is this: In contrast to the young people who grew up in the immediate post-Sputnik era, too few students today are enticed at an early enough age by the beauties of physical and mathematical phenomena. Too many are “scared off” by the accurate perception that these disciplines are difficult, that they require serious work and effort. We are not sufficiently engaging America’s young people in these studies and preparing them for the advanced learning and accomplishment in these fields that we as a nation require for our future economic health and security.

In recent years, other countries have been far more successful in inculcating a commitment to this type of work than we have. In a recent report on the urgency of “Tapping America’s Potential,” the Business Roundtable cites an estimate that if current trends continue, more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers in the world will be living in Asia. More than 50 percent of all engineering doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. engineering colleges are going to foreign nationals.

Perhaps you noticed Thomas Friedman’s recent editorial in The New York Times. In that column, Mr. Friedman described his experience attending this year’s Commencement at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is, of course, one of this country’s great science and engineering schools. “For a moment,” he wrote, “as the foreign names kept coming…I thought that the entire class of doctoral students in physics were going to be Chinese….” Friedman warned that “we can’t keep being stupid about these things. You can’t have a world where foreign-born students dominate your science graduate schools, research labs, journal publications and can now more easily than ever go back to their home countries to start companies–without it eventually impacting our standard of living…”

So we simply must get more of our students hooked on these fields. Early. And that’s where so many of you here today have a real opportunity. You’re the ones in those classrooms, able to reach these young minds well before they get to a college campus, when, frankly, it may be too late.

I’m not about to presume to tell you how to do your jobs. But I would like to suggest that we all think about some new work, work that was in fact recently highlighted in Education Update, from the eminent psychologist Howard Gardner.

In his new book Five Minds for the Future, Dr. Gardner poses a big question: What minds should we be cultivating in our young people, what kinds of minds will they need if they (and we, as a society) “are to thrive in the world during the eras to come”?

I am struck by his formulation of five mind “types”: the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind. Of course, I think all these minds need cultivating, and I certainly hope that on the postsecondary level, we’re doing exactly that work at CUNY. But I must say that when I think of the discouraging trends I’ve just outlined for you, two of Dr. Gardner’s “minds” assume added importance: the disciplined mind, and the creating one.

Why the disciplined mind? As Dr. Gardner makes clear in his book, a disciplined mind learns the ways of thinking that we associate with the major disciplines (he singles out mathematics, science, history, and “at least one art form”).

And a disciplined mind, Dr. Gardner suggests, is an active and creative one. “Once one has understood well a particular play, a particular war, a particular physical or biological or managerial concept, the appetite has been whetted for additional and deeper understanding, and for clear-cut performances in which one’s understanding can be demonstrated to others and to oneself. Indeed, the genuine understander is unlikely in the future to accept only superficial understandings. Rather, having eaten from the tree of understanding, he or she is likely to return there repeatedly for ever more satisfying intellectual nourishment.”

This vital intellectual curiosity establishes a bridge. Dr. Gardner’s “creating mind” is one that seeks new work, new standards, new questions, new answers. It’s one that views an outlying point or result not as something to dismiss or excuse or ignore, but as something to investigate. It’s a mind like that of Albert Einstein, whose success as a theorist, as Walter Isaacson has observed in a new biography, “came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity. He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew that math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders.”

We need young Americans to “have it all”: They need the disciplinary knowledge associated with mathematics and the sciences, and they need the imagination and creativity too often missing from rote learning. It’s a lot to ask of those responsible for teaching them, but it simply must be done.

Turning to the second trend I mentioned earlier–the dismally low numbers of African-American and Latino men (and women) pursuing advanced studies and careers in the STEM disciplines–I want to point again to Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson’s observations. To build a new technical workforce, she says, we must look within our own emerging demographics. “Today’s workforce of scientists and engineers no longer mirrors the national profile. White males comprise nearly 70 percent of the science and engineering workforce, but just over 40 percent of the overall workforce.” By contrast, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and persons with disabilities comprise 24 percent of the population, but only 7 percent of the science and engineering workforce. “If the intellectual talent inherent in [underrepresented groups] were identified, nurtured, and encouraged, the projected gap of scientists and engineers would be filled.”

I agree. In that spirit, I want to once again congratulate today’s Distinguished Leader in Education awardee. The work that George Weiss and Say Yes to Education have done for the least advantaged young people in urban areas is nothing short of outstanding.

And it’s absolutely inspiring. It makes us think about what else we can do to effect positive change. I have one idea, and I hope you’ll bear with me as I test it out on you.

Here’s the broad outline for the pilot program, which I’d love to see come to fruition here in New York City before expanding nationwide.

Suppose we followed Mr. Weiss’s lead and intervened early–way before college, way before high school, even before middle school?

Suppose we went into New York public schools with large numbers of African-American and Hispanic-American children, equipped with a mechanism to determine which children possess particular aptitude and promise for serious work in mathematics and the sciences?

Suppose we had sufficient programming and funding resources to nurture these students through middle school and high school and they flourished correspondingly, earning admission to CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College?

Suppose the most elite universities collaborated with us so that with our letters of acceptance we could offer these students a double opportunity: an excellent undergraduate education, with their tuition paid; their housing provided; stipends; and other opportunities–PLUS a promise: Keep up the good work we know we can expect from you for the next four years, and you are guaranteed a place in a top-flight Ph.D. program, too.

Just imagine the possibilities.

What would we need to make this happen? Quite obviously, we would need a reliable mechanism to identify the most promising students so early in their lives. We’d need a lot of public and private financial support. This is a major investment. And we’d need a real collaborative effort of teachers and administrators at every level, from elementary school through the doctoral degree.

Of course, this is just one, new idea. But to paraphrase the old rabbinical saying ["You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to avoid it," Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot ("Ethics/Sayings of the Fathers")], you are free to disagree with me, but, as educators–as outstanding educators–you are obligated to attend to the two undeniable patterns I outlined early in these remarks.

Let that be the charge with which we leave this meeting today.

Thank you.