Monday, January 17, 2011

U.S. Schools Are Still Ahead—Way Ahead

From Duke/Harvard/Berkeley professor Vivek Wahwa, writing in Bloomberg;

"The independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce. They learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks. They can think for themselves, and they can innovate. This is why America remains the world leader in innovation; why Chinese and Indians invest their life savings to send their children to expensive U.S. schools when they can. India and China are changing, and as the next generations of students become like American ones, they too are beginning to innovate. So far, their education systems have held them back.

My research team at Duke looked in depth at the engineering education of China and India. We documented that these countries now graduate four to seven times as many engineers as does the U.S. The quality of these engineers, however, is so poor that most are not fit to work as engineers; their system of rote learning handicaps those who do get jobs, so it takes two to three years for them to achieve the same productivity as fresh American graduates.As a result, significant proportions of China's engineering graduates end up working on factory floors and Indian industry has to spend large sums of money retraining its employees. After four or five years in the workforce, Indians do become innovative and produce, overall, at the same quality as Americans, but they lose a valuable two to three years in their retraining.

Let's keep improving our education system and focus, in particular, on disadvantaged groups. Education is the future of our nation. But let's get over our inferiority complex. America is second to none. Rather than in mastery of facts learned by rote and great numbers of accomplished martinets, its strength lies in the diversity and innovation that arise in an open, creative society."

36 Comments:

At 1/17/2011 10:28 PM, Blogger Hydra said...

Jeez. I remember incidents of brain numbing stupidity designed solely to induce conformity.

 
At 1/17/2011 11:32 PM, Blogger Andrew_M_Garland said...

"We documented that these countries now graduate four to seven times as many engineers as does the U.S."

You write that many do not get jobs. Those with jobs need an extra 3 years to think independently and become productive.

Question: How many of these engineers eventually become employed and productive? Is this an inefficient system for training many more engineers, or an inefficient system for training about as many (per capita) as in the US?

 
At 1/18/2011 12:15 AM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Good article, but I would phrase it differently. The fact is that education is horrible everywhere, but it's marginally better in the US because rote memorization isn't as heavily employed. Also, because education isn't as stressed here, Americans spend less time doing their worthless American homework. This situation is such a joke that online learning will soon decimate educational institutions the world over, providing much better skills and learning at a fraction of the cost.

 
At 1/18/2011 6:18 AM, Blogger aeraine said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 1/18/2011 6:24 AM, Blogger aeraine said...

This is not true in every respect. First of all, there is a huge discrepancy in quality between universities, some being amongst the world's best and some merely providing for the high local demand in college education. So, the engineering figure does not provide a very good and broad picture. The one thing in which China is REALLY lagging though is post-doctorate education. Moreover, 57% of postdoctorates in the U.S. were foreign-born according to a 2002 study if I am not mistaken, which suggest the U.S. now relies on outsourcing rather than naturing of local talents. The author doesn't really know what he's talking about, and this will become evident in the coming years.

 
At 1/18/2011 6:54 AM, Blogger geoih said...

And yet there are still colossal examples of failure. Just today on Drudge there's a story about Detroit's public schools, closing half their buildings, increasing class size to over 60, all with a budget of twice per student of the surrounding districts.

 
At 1/18/2011 11:36 AM, Blogger AIG said...

Aeraine, the fact that 57%+ of post-docs are foreign born (and certainly more today) is indicative of the superior education system in the US, particularly the higher up you go. It makes little difference if it is natural growth or not. US education at the university + level is just far superior. And thats what counts. The US uni+ education serves a global market, not just the US (although 90%+ of them end up staying in the US)

Immigration is far more important to the US as a brain magnet than as a magnet for cheap farm laborers. Except that this is where the US gov. steps in and imposes very tough requirements for many of these students to stay in the US (maybe not at the post-doc level, but up to and including masters level)

 
At 1/18/2011 12:11 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

28% of last year's graduates from Chinese universities were unable to find jobs.

whether that is a sign of poor quality grads or of the primitiveness of china's economy i'm not sure, but it's certainly very worrying number in a country that purports to be growing so rapidly and in which the labor costs for manufacturing workers are going up so dramatically due to a lack of supply (lewis point).

 
At 1/18/2011 12:27 PM, Blogger Hydra said...

Aeraine, the fact that 57%+ of post-docs are foreign born (and certainly more today) is indicative of the superior education system in the US, particularly the higher up you go.

=================================

I don't see that this is necessarily a true stateent unless you know how many post docs in foreign universities are foreign born.

Maybe a high percentage of foreign students is the norm for post doc schools.

 
At 1/18/2011 1:21 PM, Blogger AIG said...

Hydra, what do you think the % of foreign born doctoral + students is in China? India? Sure theres a lot in Australia, HK, Europe etc too. But they are usually the ones who couldn't get into a US program.

 
At 1/18/2011 1:21 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

In the age of the Inernet, do we really need public universities anymore?

Can we not devise tests, and passing the test would result in a BA?

Then people could study on their own, and with (heavily scrutinized) ID take a test, and become credentialed, at much lower cost. Like a few hundred dollars for books (maybe not even that--all materials could be online).

This strikes me as a good way to go.

 
At 1/18/2011 1:48 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Sorry Mark but there is a problem with the commentary that you cited. Nobody in China would try to assume that all of the 'engineers' that graduate are of the same quality. In fact, private employers will not hire some engineers from some schools because they understand the difficulty that the schools have in attracting teaching talent and their inability to attract top students to their institutions.

Those of us who have actually worked with Chinese engineers know that the school matters and that an engineer from one place may not be of the same quality as one from another. I have no trouble accepting the argument that the top schools have good, highly-paid, and competent professors who turn out competent students. I also have no trouble with the argument that the Chinese can be just as creative and curious as their Western counterparts. Anyone who has gone and listened to campus debates in China finds that there are topics that the Chinese are willing to argue about that cannot be brought up in the PC world of the American campus. In many ways many American students are tamer sheep than the Chinese.

It is time to tone down the rhetoric and pay attention to reality. It will tell us what is going on far better than the opinion pieces driven by bias that come at us from both sides.

 
At 1/18/2011 1:50 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

"Then people could study on their own, and with (heavily scrutinized) ID take a test, and become credentialed, at much lower cost. Like a few hundred dollars for books (maybe not even that--all materials could be online)."

You only have to ask.

 
At 1/18/2011 2:09 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

Ron H-

I love what Phoenix is doing, but we need much bigger and more accepted system of self study, validated by serious and sanctioned test taking.

I love the idea that some guy, studying hard, can "earn" a BA in engineering just by working hard--not by coughing up XX grand to a school.

The four-year college, like our medical system and military, is becoming primarily defined by lard and ossification, hurting the very people it is supposed to help.

 
At 1/18/2011 2:31 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

"I love what Phoenix is doing, but we need much bigger and more accepted system of self study, validated by serious and sanctioned test taking."

K-12 is also available online

 
At 1/18/2011 3:16 PM, Blogger AIG said...

Vangel, while all you say is true, it doesn't refute the statements made in the article. You are using anecdotal evidence, which is certainly true. Top Chinese universities and top Chinese students can be even better, more innovative etc than US institutions. But you are only looking at the top.

It would be interesting to follow those top Chinese students and see where they end up doing their masters, PhDs etc. Want to see how many end up going in the US or outside of China? ( the same applies for top students in most developing economies. I saw somewhere a tracking of where top Iranian students from some years back were; all were outside of Iran and most were in the US)

And most American commentators who argue the other side look at these students; the top foreign students who come to the US, and say "well they're just so much better". For every one of them, there's 50 others who don't make the cut. And in the end, the US benefits because they come here.

And this brain-trade would be much more to the US's favor if the gov. got out of the way.

 
At 1/18/2011 3:29 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

I love what Phoenix is doing, but we need much bigger and more accepted system of self study, validated by serious and sanctioned test taking.

The business model does not work as well as some people think. Phoenix is still relying too much on people who need government money to pay for their courses. A big chunk of their 'students' are actually homeless people. What impresses me more is the vast amount of course material that is available for free on the internet. By allowing on-line access to real engineering courses at MIT, the Indians and Chinese see exactly what they have to do to be as good as the American schools.

 
At 1/18/2011 3:35 PM, Blogger aorod said...

Like Asia, Detroit is handicapped by a government run school system capable of only pandering to the social welfare clients it serves.

 
At 1/18/2011 3:40 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Vangel, while all you say is true, it doesn't refute the statements made in the article. You are using anecdotal evidence, which is certainly true....

But the study is also using anecdotal evidence. All I am pointing out is that just as there is a difference between MIT and the University of Phoenix there is a difference between Jiaotong and Southwest University.

Top Chinese universities and top Chinese students can be even better, more innovative etc than US institutions. But you are only looking at the top.

The big breakthroughs come from a small portion of the population. I would say that 75% of the real long term productivity gains will come from the actions of the top 2-3% of engineering students. The problem is that we do not know where those 2-3% will come from. While the odds are good that some will have studied at the top schools there is no guarantee that the real big gains will come from the best student at a decent university.

I also think that the environment will play a big part. Companies and governments that have strict rules where much activity is controlled are unlikely to do as well regardless of how smart the people who work for them. Most of the great progress made in the US did not come from some solitary university educated genius working alone but from a guy working his ass off to overcome setbacks in the hope that he comes up with something that makes him rich. In fact, when it comes to real progress the credentialed and honoured have done far less than unknowns who just burst on the scene. Unless Chinese are very different they would do just as well in a system that does not get in their way as we could. The real problem for all of us is that the system that we live and work in does get in the way.

 
At 1/18/2011 3:48 PM, Blogger Jason said...

In my experience, foreign born engineers schooled in America tend to be very capable. Even more so if language is not an impediment.

Engineers schooled in Asia are a mixed bag. One of the best I've had the pleasure of working with was schooled in Sri Lanka. Others many times have great paper qualifications but lack practical knowledge. A good number are motivated and make up for shortcoming with good work ethic. Some are...useless. Pretty much a bell curve.

But one thing is certain, there are tons of them.

 
At 1/18/2011 4:15 PM, OpenID Sprewell said...

While I'm a big believer in online learning, what I've heard about University of Phoenix isn't good. And surprise, surprise, they get 90% of their revenue from title IV loans, which are either federally provided or guaranteed: trust the govt to fuck up even private providers. The real online learning revolution starts when websites start using the cost savings from tech to drop the tuition to less than a tenth of what it is now and cut the sizable fat and optional stuff from the curriculum, neither of which UoP is doing or appears capable of. They will be put out of business just like all the worthless physical universities today.

 
At 1/18/2011 4:24 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

Vange-

"A big chunk of their (Phoenix') 'students' are actually homeless people."

Sometimes you peddle credible crud, but sometimes.....

 
At 1/18/2011 5:29 PM, Blogger AIG said...

"By allowing on-line access to real engineering courses at MIT, the Indians and Chinese see exactly what they have to do to be as good as the American schools."

IIT has thousands of engineering classes posted in full on Youtube. MIT could just as easily copy them.

There's nothing IP about class material taught in any engineering class in undergrad, masters or even PhD level class. Thermodynamics is thermodynamics. Statics is statics.

What differentiates the US post-grad education system is the experience, the research and the money that comes with it. China doesn't have the first two. And there's nowhere that that top 2% of Chinese students are going to get the research and access to experience other than in the US. And there's nowhere where their services are in greater demand or better paid than in the US (would they stay in the US and start off at 150k...or go to China to live off 15k?)

China for the past 60 years has been doing nothing more than copying technology, but not able to add to it. Its still in the same situation. Why? Because there's no experience to build on, no interest from private industry to research and because the top 2% always leaves China.

And this won't change either with China-based R&D centers US companies are building. US companies are well aware of the lack of IP protection in China, and they'd rather recruit the top performers for the US then keep them in China.

Either way, the US wins out big time both from China and from India. We get all their brains (and Eastern Europe too...though that already happened 10-20 years ago and its been sucked dry). The next wave, hopefully, will be W.European brain-drain into the US (as they grow more and more stagnant)

 
At 1/18/2011 6:24 PM, Blogger StVIS said...

"Those of us who have actually worked with Chinese engineers know that the school matters and that an engineer from one place may not be of the same quality as one from another."

That's strange because I know a person who's been to China over 30 thirty times on business, and he complains about the skills, the quality of many of China's engineers. He said the problem stems from the fact that many Chinese engineering schools are nothing more than diploma mills that were set up in the past 10 years.

 
At 1/18/2011 8:30 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

What differentiates the US post-grad education system is the experience, the research and the money that comes with it. China doesn't have the first two.

But doesn't the US have a lot of trouble attracting post-grad students in mathematics, sciences, and engineering? And aren't many of the foreign students that are educated in the US finding their way to China to start their own ventures or find work for companies that offer them more interesting lives and better opportunities?

The patent filings tell the story. After decades being at the top of the heap, the US is about to slide into second place as China surpasses it. And let me point out that the lack of resources sometimes requires creative thinking and develops stronger problem solving skills. We found this out in some areas with Russian programers who wrote much more efficient codes not because they were smarter but because of hardware memory and speed limitations that were not constraints for their American counterparts.

And there's nowhere that that top 2% of Chinese students are going to get the research and access to experience other than in the US. And there's nowhere where their services are in greater demand or better paid than in the US (would they stay in the US and start off at 150k...or go to China to live off 15k?)

Actually, many of them go back and get paid far more. An acquaintance went to China to work for an outfit in Shanghai. The job came with a nice place to stay that would belong to the employee in five years if he remained with the company. The after tax had far more purchasing power in China than it did in Toronto or Boston and the nightlife and entertainment were certainly a hell of a lot better in Asia than in Canada or the US.

 
At 1/18/2011 8:36 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

China for the past 60 years has been doing nothing more than copying technology, but not able to add to it. Its still in the same situation. Why? Because there's no experience to build on, no interest from private industry to research and because the top 2% always leaves China.

Then how do you explain the fact that China is on pace to file more patents than the US this year?

And this won't change either with China-based R&D centers US companies are building. US companies are well aware of the lack of IP protection in China, and they'd rather recruit the top performers for the US then keep them in China.

But as I wrote before, China offers some very good incentives for recruits. The after-tax compensation can be significantly better as can the social life and business opportunities. I would argue that the Chinese are much more resilient and flexible because they have a long history of major catastrophes that required decisive action by individuals. The Chinese are much more self reliant than Americans and are eager to exploit any opportunity that the markets provide. If the incentives are there they will take the time and energy to profit from investments in R&D.

Either way, the US wins out big time both from China and from India. We get all their brains (and Eastern Europe too...though that already happened 10-20 years ago and its been sucked dry). The next wave, hopefully, will be W.European brain-drain into the US (as they grow more and more stagnant)

The US is broke and far too intrusive for many companies. I suspect that you might see a brain drain that takes talented Americans out of the US and into China, India, Australia, New Zealand, and other places.

 
At 1/18/2011 8:51 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

That's strange because I know a person who's been to China over 30 thirty times on business, and he complains about the skills, the quality of many of China's engineers. He said the problem stems from the fact that many Chinese engineering schools are nothing more than diploma mills that were set up in the past 10 years.

That is what I said, where a student comes from matters in China because some of the institutions are still poor because they can't attract decent faculty and because the best students go to the top universities. Western companies like Boeing, Ford, GM, Volvo, etc., pay close attention to the school when hiring engineers for their Chinese operations. Boeing will not be too worried if it hired a materials engineer from Jiaotong but would have trouble with students from some of the 'lesser' schools.

 
At 1/18/2011 9:23 PM, Blogger AIG said...

Vangel, many of your points seem to be anecdotal. I personally have never met a Chinese student who wanted to go back to China (I have met some Indians who did, but they were already very well off in India).

If the US is having trouble attracting post-grad students in math, science and eng...what are the 57% of post-docs who are foreign-born doing research in? Psychology? If the US is having trouble, who is attracting them? France?

Look at the census data of any zip code that contains a major research institution, and you'll notice a disproportional % of Asians living there. Look at the websites of major research institutions at the current students section. You might see a white face or two.

Here's an anecdote. I once lived for a short time in a university housing complex for researchers and their families. I would not exaggerate that I and 2 other people were the only white people in the complex. I would not exaggerate also that the Chinese students would go crazy having babies once they got to the US (as demonstrated by the large number of equal-height kids per family). They're not going back to China.

As for patents, thats not necessarily the best way of measuring innovation or competitiveness. What they are matters more than how many there are. Chinese churn out PhDs too by the thousands at each school. One has to wonder just how worthy these Chinese PhDs are.

"Actually, many of them go back and get paid far more."

Maybe 35K tops if they have PhD from the US. Their professors probably don't get paid that much. That kind of money won't get you the big house for your 4 kids in China (China's one child policy was the best gift they could have made for the US). No amount of Shanghai nightlife is going to sway that (when did a Chinese post-dock who by then has 2 kids, become concerned with nightlife?)

 
At 1/18/2011 9:51 PM, Blogger AIG said...

"Then how do you explain the fact that China is on pace to file more patents than the US this year?"

There's nothing to explain. # of patents doesn't mean much. Likewise, some Chinese universities will turn out PhDs at the rate US universities turn out undergrads. But whats their value?

"The after-tax compensation can be significantly better as can the social life and business opportunities."

I would argue you give too much credit to this "nightlife" of China (ok Shanghai might be ok for like a week). My experience is that Chinese, culturally, are far more family-oriented and don't really care about nightlife. I've had Chinese roommates and lived around them. They all had 2 kids by the time I was about ready to cut my drinking down to 2 nights a week. Thats why they like living in the US more and aspire to it much more than, I think, you give them credit for. (the big house with the lawn for 4 kids...is a Chinese dream)

"I would argue that the Chinese are much more resilient and flexible because they have a long history of major catastrophes that required decisive action by individuals. The Chinese are much more self reliant than Americans and are eager to exploit any opportunity that the markets provide."

No disagreement there whatsoever. The spirit of Capitalism is alive and well in China. But this doesn't translate to academic or intellectual capacity. China's economic growth is fueled by street smarts and cost/operating advantages. Its not fueled by intellectual innovations. And I don't think it will for quite a while still.

"If the incentives are there they will take the time and energy to profit from investments in R&D."

They have yet to demonstrate so, because all their best brains come here.

"The US is broke and far too intrusive for many companies. I suspect that you might see a brain drain that takes talented Americans out of the US and into China, India, Australia, New Zealand, and other places.
"

We've heard this narrative for about 30 years now. No matter how "bad" the US gov. makes conditions in the US for business, they are still far superior to anywhere else in the world. Simple comparative statistics on compensation will show what the value multi-nationals place on a US engineer vs a Chinese engineer is. (even more demonstrative, an engineer 1 mile into the US border will make 10 times the salary the same engineer will make 1 mile into Mexico. Why? Is the company stupid to hire the US guy?)

Australia and NZ are certainly opportunities for growth, and Asians are flooding there too. But US PhDs or engineers are not going to line up to go to China to make 30K or to India to make 20K.

Current conditions standing, the US will still attract the best talent. I agree that we the closest we have ever been to a tipping point, but we're not there yet.

 
At 1/18/2011 9:55 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Vangel, many of your points seem to be anecdotal. I personally have never met a Chinese student who wanted to go back to China (I have met some Indians who did, but they were already very well off in India).


I know people who have gone back to China after finding out that it is far too expensive to work and live in Canada. I have two friends who live close to me that own factories in the solar industry, one who is owns an architectural supply business, and a few others who have businesses in China. They live there nine months a year and around three months in Canada. Their kids are going back to China every summer to take language and math courses. When they are done university the kids will go back and work in China, not here. The bottom line is that it is a lot easier to get rich in China than it is here and it is a lot easier to have a higher quality lifestyle even if you are not rich.

If the US is having trouble attracting post-grad students in math, science and eng...what are the 57% of post-docs who are foreign-born doing research in? Psychology? If the US is having trouble, who is attracting them? France?

Good American students prefer law and medicine because they pay bette and avoid the hard-work/low-pay fields such as mathematics, sciences, and engineering. That is why most grad schools have a disproportionate number of foreigners studying math, physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

 
At 1/18/2011 10:47 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

I would argue you give too much credit to this "nightlife" of China (ok Shanghai might be ok for like a week). My experience is that Chinese, culturally, are far more family-oriented and don't really care about nightlife.

Try getting out in a major Chinese city and see how valid this statement is. I never had any problem finding good spots in China and had a blast during the two years I was there. My company sent 25 or 26 single employees to China who stayed for at least one year. All but one wound up getting married.

I've had Chinese roommates and lived around them. They all had 2 kids by the time I was about ready to cut my drinking down to 2 nights a week. Thats why they like living in the US more and aspire to it much more than, I think, you give them credit for. (the big house with the lawn for 4 kids...is a Chinese dream)

There is no doubt that some do like it as long as the economic picture remains bright for them. But given the very high tax rates and the low purchasing power I would say that many of them could do much better in China, particularly if they are single.

China's economic growth is fueled by street smarts and cost/operating advantages. Its not fueled by intellectual innovations. And I don't think it will for quite a while still.

That was definitely true in the aerospace sector, which is where I worked. But the problem there was the government. The factory had other lines of business in which it was much more innovative and creative because the government was not as involved in the non-military projects and the managers in those divisions had much more freedom from oversight.

 
At 1/19/2011 4:10 AM, Blogger sethstorm said...


Vivek Wadhwa


While at the same time, he promotes the fraudulent use of non-citizen labor(e.g. H-1*,L-1, etc.) because we don't have "enough people" to fill things with unattainable (and fraudulent) qualifications.

 
At 1/19/2011 9:01 AM, Blogger Aiken_Bob said...

A lot of good comments, however, most are related to the college/university level and engineering. The problem really exists in the K-12 area. The students in college are already the cream of the crop and are self motivated by in large. The comparison between other countries at various levels of k-12 is not good.

What makes this of concern is the trend line in going in the wrong direction. Verbal skills and critical thinking skills are down.

There are solutions out there, hopefully we will be smart enough to use them.

 
At 1/19/2011 1:08 PM, Blogger Tom said...

US K-12 education could be much better. Pointing out the poor practices in other nations is cold comfort. It is no reason to accept the pitiful performance of our K-12 government schools system. What we need is freedom to choose, and break away from the government monopoly. Let one thousand flowers bloom.

 
At 1/19/2011 8:26 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

While at the same time, he promotes the fraudulent use of non-citizen labor...

In a free country employers would be free to use any labour that they want.

 
At 1/19/2011 8:33 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

The students in college are already the cream of the crop and are self motivated by in large.

But the colleges have a big problem too. There are studies that show that students are actually not learning very much

 

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