Next generation workforce: Outperformed in math and science

December 8, 2010, 8:41 PM UTC

Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett tells Fortune why U.S. students’ terrible test scores must rise for the country to remain an economic powerhouse, and how his organizations aim to help.

If you want to get a sense of what’s in store for the American workforce, just take a look at how our students match up against the rest of the world in math and science. After all, most of the professions within the U.S. economy that are growing — healthcare, information technology, and biomedicine — require extensive training in both subjects.

So how are we doing? Not well, at all.

American 15-year old students scored below average in math and were outperformed by 23 other countries and education systems, according to test results released Tuesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment.

And they didn’t do much better in science, ranking 19 among the lot of 65 participating countries and education systems (N.B. “educational systems” are individual cities within a country, like Shanghai).

Students who took the exams in Shanghai ranked at the top of the heap on all accounts, dialing up the volume of the talent competition between the U.S. and China in particular, and all developing economies in general.

Fortune recently spoke with Craig Barrett, former chairman and CEO of Intel (INTC) and a major education advocate, to get his perspective on where schools need to go to adequately prepare the next generation American workforce.

Barrett is the chairman of Change the Equation, a nonprofit organization devoted to bringing CEOs together to support education reform; the co-chair of Achieve, Inc., a group that works with state governors to promote the adoption of common curriculum standards; and the president and CEO of BASIS Schools, an Arizona charter school system.

Fortune: Every few years, we read headlines saying that the U.S., in one way or another, is falling behind the competition. So how concerned should we really be about the math and science stats?

Barrett: The average U.S. kid is in the bottom quartile of the OECD countries in math and science. [New statistics published after this interview was conducted say that in OECD countries, U.S. students have managed to climb out of the bottom quartile in science, but not math.] If that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, I don’t know what would.

What gives?

The problem is our overall expectations have been set so low that it’s pathetic. Mainly because we haven’t had good teachers who can do more than stay 30 minutes ahead of the kids in the classroom on these topics.

The quality of education depends on three things and three things only. The quality of the teachers. The expectation levels that you set. And … a bit of tension or a feedback loop. The feedback loop helps struggling students, it helps struggling teachers, it pays for performance. It’s a little bit of tension to make the system really run. You have to have those three things or you get the U.S. system.

What do you think is keeping the U.S. education system from achieving these three things?

One of the biggest challenges is just saying you will no longer tolerate mediocre performance. Arizona where I reside has an exit examination to get out of high school. It’s called the AIMS test. It started out with great intentions as a test which would raise standards by being a difficult test.

When they first tried to introduce it, they found nobody could pass it, so they dumbed it down so that everybody could pass. And that is the lack of political will on the system to say we mean it when we’re going to raise our standards.

Do you think major corporations like Intel will eventually just move elsewhere on the basis of finding talent?

They already are. International corporations aren’t dumb. And if the talent is not in the U.S., they’ll follow the talent. They have to to survive. And this is what has not permeated the U.S. discussion.

When our leaders, Republican or Democrat, get in front of the audience and say, “The U.S. is at it’s best in a time of crisis. We will rise above all of this. We will show the world that nobody can compete with our workforce,” I’m sitting there scratching my head.

Why is it that no one else can compete with us? Okay, we’re entrepreneurial. Other countries are getting more entrepreneurial.

On the basics of education, preparation for the workforce, we’re in the bottom quartile. What makes us special? What makes us think we’re special?

Recruiting top talent in any industry comes at a significant cost. How do you convince students coming out of top schools, likely with loans to pay off, to go into teaching?

How does Wendy Kopp do it from Teach for America? Why is she oversubscribed … for the positions she has?

These are kids coming out of the top schools. They have loans just like everybody else. Come up with a program. Start forgiving loans for the number of years you spend teaching.

I think there is a great capability to attract smart kids if you don’t say to the kid, “If you want to be a teacher, you have to go through the mind-numbing experience of four years at a school of education as opposed to being a content expert in some topic and we’ll make you a teacher later.”

Despite the significant sums of federal money that are doled out to support education reform, the systems are run by the states. Do you see that changing any time soon?

The feds can catalyze this and catalyze that and do little things, but the implementation has to be down at the state level.

The chief education education officers are the governors. And if the governors can get together and agree on common core curriculum at the state level, if they can agree on an internationally benchmarked common assessment tool to see how they are doing relative to the rest of the world, that’s a great step.

But this has been a local level issue for its entire history. And look how badly screwed up it is. If you just give it back to the same folks who have screwed it up for 200 years, you expect it get fixed? It’s got to have some outside influence.

What’s driving your work in education? Why did you choose this particular philanthropic path after stepping down from Intel?

My wife and I both have the same background. We both came from lower middle class families. We both were able to get good educations. Those educations opened the doors to our future. And those educations came not because we had money, but because we got scholarships and somebody helped us.

We recognize the value of a good education. We recognize that not every kid can have access to that. So how many kids can you help have access to that? It’s the only extracurricular activity we have in our lives.