We were a little surprised this week to see a poster in the window of the UrbanArt Commission for the advocacy film, “Two Million Minutes,” a film that purports to demonstrate how far behind American students are when compared to their peers in India and China.

The general premise of the film is that the students in those nations more wisely invest their two million minutes in school than U.S. kids and then portentously projects the fall of American Civilization on the basis of an alleged erosion of our students’ performance in math and science. The film often feels more like it was a conclusion in search of an argument rather than a project in search of the facts.

Most of all, it feeds into the well-orchestrated hysteria by some business organizations that “the United States is in danger of losing its competitive edge in science and technology.” We haven’t seen this much angst since our nation cast the Soviet Union as a superpower to justify sending trillions of dollars to the well-connected defense industry. Only later did we learn that we had been victims of our own government’s propaganda.

How About Art?

So, why were we surprised to see the poster in the UAC’s window?

Because we think that based on other research, we could make the argument that if those two million minutes included a much greater emphasis on art and music, they would produce better results in our students’ lives and careers.

This all began in earnest four years ago when 15 prominent business groups – including U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Defense Industrial Council – whipped up paranoia, perhaps with a dash of xenophobia, by warning direly that a lack of expert engineers and scientists pose a grave threat to U.S. competitiveness. Actually, we’d place more of the blame on some inane economic policies of the current administration, but we suspect that most of the businessmen had already sent in their campaign contributions. As a result, it should be no surprise that these business groups are looking to the Bush Administration for incentives and tax breaks to create what one of them called more “raw material” for them.

The Drum Beat

Today, the same groups issued an updated report that beat the drum again for the crisis in American education and points out that we are being left in the dust by Indian engineers. We immediately thought of a news item that showed that more than $2 billion is being spent in India on college entrance exam coaching and the call by the Indian Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry for deregulation of higher education. “If quality institutions are provided, a large number of students will stay back (home) and contribute to the nation,” the business group there said.

Oh, well, we don’t want to be too harsh on businessmen – whatever their nationality – for worrying about their profit margins, but we’re frankly fatigued from the constant whipping that American education takes in the process. For decades, business leadership in the U.S. has decried a failed education system, and while we are proponents for our own preferred reforms, we think that we need to keep our balance. It’s not as if in the decades since “A Nation At Risk,” American ingenuity and global economic dominance have vanished.

Also, we think that a single strategy on a single front – more emphasis on science and math – is simplistic and denies the realities of the knowledge economy, not to mention the components of a fulfilling life. Only someone at the top of the business food chain could suggest that the answer to our economic future is for American students to be more obsessive-compulsive about school and should feel ashamed for their participation in the extra-curricular activities that give their lives pleasure and camaraderie.

Chicken Little

We’re not saying that it’s not a good goal to have more people with degrees in science, math and engineering (and art and music for that matter), but we are saying that we need to discuss it without suggesting that the sky is falling. After all, in our opinion, the facts tell a different story.

About the same time as the business report said that China and India were producing more engineers, Duke University conducted a study to evaluate the persistent repeating of these dire statistics as evidence of declining American prowess in the world. Its conclusions were simple enough: they are misleading at best and inaccurate at worst.

First of all, when considered in terms of population, the U.S. is producing about 750 engineering graduates for every one million people; in China, it’s 500; and in Indian, it’s 200.

The Proverbial Apples And Oranges

In addition, when China and India report graduates in engineering, they don’t limit them to people with four-year degrees, and they include computer technology specialists and technicians. In fact, only about half of these countries’ annual engineering graduates are capable of competing in an environment known for its outsourcing. To compound the flimsiness of the statistics, there is even evidence that China includes motor mechanics in its number. If you look at the kinds of jobs filled by engineers in India and China – low-paid engineering jobs at that – they are those that can be filled by transactional engineers, according to the study. In the area of high-level engineering, the field that is dominated by U.S. engineers, and there’s no reason to predict that it will not remain that way.

In addition, researchers at Georgetown University and The Urban Institute issued a research report last October, “Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality and Workforce Demand.

Here’s the interesting part: “Of the challenges discussed, few are thought to be as serious as the purported decline in the supply of high quality students from the beginning to the end of the S&E pipeline – a decline brought about by declining emphasis on math and science education, coupled with a supposed declining interest among domestic students in S&E careers. However, our review of the data fails to find support for these presumptions. Rather, the available data indicate increases in the absolute numbers of secondary school graduates and increases in their math and science performance levels. Domestic and international trends suggest that U.S. schools show steady improvement in math and science (and) the U.S. is not at any particular disadvantage compared with most nations, and the supply of S&E-qualified graduates is large and ranks among the best internationally.”

Needed: Bigger Megaphone

In fact, the report concluded that the American educational system produces more qualified graduates than there is demand for them. Each year, there are three times as many science and engineering four-year college graduates as job openings. “It is difficult to conclude that the major economic ‘threats’ to the United States are related to the performance levels of U.S. students as compared to students in other countries” and “our major economic competitors, particularly emerging nation behemoths, are not among top test scoring nations.”

In fact, if film producers would bother to scratch the surface, it turns out that Singapore is trying to emulate U.S. innovation and creativity and deemphasize strict math and science test performance.

Unfortunately, the news media headlines the reports by well-financed business interests and buries statistics that tell a different story. In the end, it’s a case of who can afford to biggest megaphone, and researchers don’t have the marketing machine that the business sector can mobilize to pass legislation or get out its story. As a result, these statistics continue to be widely used by people with their own special interest in creating the impression of a crisis in need of their own specialized cure, whether it is more federal money for educating for the kinds of workers they want or more tax breaks for their corporations.