Education Opinion

A Quiet Crisis is Clouding the Future of R&D

By Joseph S. Renzulli — May 24, 2005 7 min read
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Those who own the rights to inventions own the world.

—From the political platform of the Japanese Democratic Party, June 6, 2000

There's a ‘quiet crisis’ building in American education: the neglect of America’s most gifted and talented young people.

“Why,” I asked the three visitors from the Japanese Ministry of Education, “are you interested in the work we are doing?” They had come to our research center to learn about our efforts to promote the development of creative productivity in American schools. I told them that our education leaders regularly remind us to look to the East. “You have the highest scores in the world on international achievement comparisons,” I said.

I’ll never forget their reply: “Very simple, Professor. We have no Noble Prize winners. Your schools have produced a continuous flow of inventors, designers, entrepreneurs, and innovative leaders. We can make anything you invent faster, cheaper, and, in most cases, better. But we want to learn what role this ‘creative productivity’ focus plays in the production of creative and inventive people.”

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This experience caused me to think about what may be the one great asset of the American education system—an asset we may unwittingly be losing as attention is turned more and more to cranking up our achievement- test scores.

How much are new ideas worth? What are we willing to pay for the persistence, creativity, and task commitment that research scientists or industrial designers devote to following through on innovative ideas with potentially high-stakes payoffs? Can we calculate the economic value, job opportunities, and contributions to social and political stability that result from investments in the young people whose potential for creativity and innovation will produce new products, find solutions to unsolved problems, and even develop entire new industries?

Innovation resulting from research and development is widely recognized as a key ingredient in economic productivity, but the United States may be losing its edge in the culture of innovation. A quiet crisis is building that could jeopardize our nation’s pre-eminence and well-being, and this crisis could reverse the global economic leadership Americans currently enjoy. U.S. productivity growth has slowed significantly since 1973, and continues to grow at a slower rate than that of our major trading partners. And patent data, one of the best indicators of R & D productivity, also raise concerns about future U.S. competitiveness. Approximately 45 percent of new U.S. patents are granted now to foreigners, and the quality of these patents is strong, especially in the high-technology areas.

Although many factors contribute to a nation’s overall productivity, the education system in any country is a prime source for producing the R & D people of the future. In a recent report, the National Science Board pointed out that the United States faces a major shortage of scientists because too few Americans are entering these fields. We already are experiencing a decline in the indicators for making international comparisons in academic achievement. The 2003 Program for International Student Assessment ranked the United States 24th out of 29 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that represents the world’s richest countries. (“Poor Math Scores on World Stage Trouble U.S.,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

Our most talented students rank near the bottom of industrialized nations in mathematics and science comparisons, and only 39 percent of recent American-university doctorates in engineering were granted to American students. Thirty-eight percent of all the nation’s scientists and engineers with doctorates are now foreign-born. However, a recent report from the Institute of International Education announced a 2.4 percent decrease in foreign enrollment. The Council of Graduate Schools reported a 28 percent decline in international graduate applications from 2003 to 2004, and a 6 percent decline in the enrollment of first-time international graduate students. The largest drop in applications was in engineering, with a decline of 36 percent.

International students are turning in greater numbers to the higher education systems of our global competitors and are more likely to remain and seek employment in those countries following graduation. Although our capacity to attract top college and graduate students from abroad remains high, employment opportunities in other countries for the most talented foreign students are increasingly luring these students to return home, and tightening immigration and security regulations threaten to restrict the inflow of foreign students. Even if our net flow of intellectual capital from foreign countries remains high, our domestic development of high-level scientific talent is lagging, and we are relying on inflow, which is increasingly regulated.

Massive investments in the American education system currently are directed toward improving the basic skills of struggling learners.

In spite of these concerns about our declining reservoir of top foreign and domestic talent, massive investments in the American education system currently are directed toward improving the basic skills of struggling learners. No one can argue against this worthy goal, nor is there any attempt here to suggest that we should deviate from our course that seeks to improve the educational opportunities of all students. This investment will pay off in the form of a more qualified workforce, which is unquestionably an important factor for better preparing the nation’s youths for the demanding jobs required in a knowledge-driven economy. Our $350 billion annual investment in public education, however, has shifted quite dramatically, to the detriment of in-depth curricula at the highest levels in areas such as the sciences and social studies, as well as coursework that promotes physical well-being and creative and artistic development, areas now considered peripheral parts of the curriculum. Many states test only math and reading, and base school and student accountability on these two areas alone.

But what about support for the highly gifted, creative, and innovative young people whose ideas will create the products and jobs that start the wheels of productivity turning? The federal government provides only $11.2 million for research and model programs that serve gifted and talented students. Current estimates of federal education spending indicate that only 2 cents of every $100 is dedicated to the education of gifted and talented students. And there has been a slow but steady decrease in state-level expenditures for this segment of our school population. In the last few years, expenditures for services to gifted and talented students have been cut severely by many state departments of education, and states that formerly were shining examples of high-quality programs for the gifted—Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Oregon, to name a few—have eliminated funding completely.

Pressure on school budgets also has resulted in a decline in allocations for special programs at the local level. Almost weekly, I receive yet another phone call or e-mail saying that “our program has been cut.” Based on the 2002 U.S. Census survey of local-government finances, it appears that, of state money allocated to schools, less than one-half of 1 percent was targeted as categorical funding to gifted education programs (on average, across regular K-12 school districts). Only 2,424 of 10,549 public K-12 school districts reporting received categorical grants for gifted education from their states. Only about 1,800 K-12 districts received more than $100 per 5 percent of their enrollment in categorical aid. (This excludes states that flow money for gifted programs through general funds.)

Growth economists believe that improvements in productivity can be linked to a faster pace of innovation and extra investments in human capital.

Growth economists believe that improvements in productivity can be linked to a faster pace of innovation and extra investments in human capital. But are we turning our backs on the R & D people of the new century when we fail to support this segment of our school population? Is our education system’s current emphasis on just ratcheting up test scores at the expense of promoting creativity and innovative thinking the way to ensure our future as a leading nation in the business of generating original ideas, new knowledge, and even entire new industries?

I refer to this neglect of America’s most gifted and talented young people as a “quiet crisis” because by the time the damage is done, it will be too late to reverse a trend that may place our country in jeopardy. Unchecked, this trend will leave a dearth of scientists, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and creative contributors to all areas of the arts and sciences.

These kinds of contributions are precisely the factors that made America a prosperous and powerful nation through the 20th century. Our innovation stimulated a powerful knowledge-driven economy and shaped a country that made its fame and fortune by creating things, rather than merely making them. Neglect of our most gifted and talented students, including those who come from limited economic circumstances, will make it impossible for America to compete in a global economy driven by new ideas.

Improving the achievement of all students is obviously an important national goal. But let us not turn our backs on the one aspect of the American education system that has contributed to our prosperity. As Leon M. Lederman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, warned in 1990: “Once upon a time, America sheltered an Einstein, went to the moon, and gave the world the laser, the electronic computer, nylons, television, and the cure for polio. Today, we are in the process, albeit unwittingly, of abandoning this leadership role.”


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