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The Words Tell the Story

What’s Missing from the “Pledge to America” and Why it Matters

The Pledge to America SOURCE: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite Congressional Republicans announced "A Pledge to America" at a lumber yard in Sterling, Virgina on Thursday, September 23, 2010. Despite calls for increased economic competitiveness, the 48-page document conspicuously omits any mention of several key drivers of long-term growth.

Congressional Republicans released a 48-page manifesto last week called “A Pledge to America,” outlining a “new” governing agenda for job creation and economic growth. Unfortunately, nowhere amid the document’s 48 pages of inspirational quotes, photographs, and calls for tax cuts does the document address the most important drivers of long-term economic prosperity and national competitiveness—education, science, and innovation.

Indeed, totally absent from the document are the words “education,” “science,” “research,” or “technology” (“new technologies” is used once, but only to describe the use of computers and the Internet in the development of the Pledge itself). “Innovation” appears only once, in a section about government red tape, while “skill(s),” “training,” “export,” and “infrastructure” are all totally absent. Despite repeated calls for increased American “competitiveness,” nowhere in the Pledge is “sustainable” or “long-term” growth mentioned.

The words tell the story. The omission of so many of the essential prerequisites for sustainable and long-term economic growth makes the Pledge’s repeated calls for increased American “competitiveness” ring hollow. An economy that does not invent and commercialize new ideas quickly falls behind in the 21st century global economy.

Economists have realized that technological innovation is an indispensable driver of economic growth and job creation, and that “governments have a key role to play.” Multiple independent studies, including one by Nobel Laureate Robert Solow, have shown that that the “traditional” inputs of capital and labor can only account for at most 15 percent of measured economic growth, whereas the remaining 85 percent is driven by technological innovation.

The World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report for 2010” also categorizes the U.S. economy squarely within the “innovation-driven” category, meaning that its growth is driven by the practical application of new technical knowledge, in contrast with the “factor-driven” or “efficiency-driven” categories. The report also warns that the relatively high wages and the associated standard of living that we enjoy in our developed, innovation-driven economy can only be sustained if businesses are able to compete by innovating new and unique products.

But as we pointed out last week, technological innovation is increasingly dependent on a robust science system, which in turn requires talented scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to function. Unfortunately, the United States is falling behind in educating the innovators who will power the American economy of the future.

Our students rank 21st in science literacy among 30 developed countries and 25th in math literacy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This puts American 15-year olds on par with those in the Slovak Republic, and far behind students in Canada, Germany, South Korea, and Japan. In 2010, only 43 percent of U.S. high school graduates in 2010 were ready for college work in math and 29 percent were ready in science, according to Change the Equation, a network of U.S. chief executive officers concerned enough about our national competitiveness to band together in support of better science, technology, engineering, and math teaching in our elementary and secondary schools.

Indeed, less than one-third of U.S. eighth graders show proficiency in mathematics and science, according to a report prepared by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. And according to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranks only 48th in quality math and science education, far behind countries such as Canada, India, Poland—even Tunisia and Qatar. (see chart)

Figure: The United States balance of trade in advanced technology goods has been declining steadily. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau Foreign Trade Statistics, compiled by Science Progress.

As President Obama said in January, “Make no mistake: Our future is on the line. The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.” Unlike the “Pledge to America,” President Obama has put his money where his mouth is. While the Pledge refers repeatedly to the need to help businesses and entrepreneurs invest and invent, one wonders whether its authors have ever asked the companies they claim to advocate for what they really need to stay competitive in the 21st century.

In stark contrast stands the Obama administration’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which has set an ambitious agenda and partnered with the private sector to “elevate STEM education as a national priority essential to meeting the economic challenges of this century.” As part of this campaign, the White House has helped to convene over 100 major U.S. companies to found a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Change the Equation, which is investing more than $700 million in overhauling STEM education in the United States (STEM education stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—four economically important skill sets where American students are falling behind).

These companies are supporting the president’s STEM education agenda and even putting millions of their own dollars into it because they know that without concerted action to keep America’s students competitive in math and science now, they will be unable to obtain quality employees to keep them competitive in the future. These investments will fund a growing array of public-private partnerships including:

  • More than 350 science centers and science museums are pledging to offer 2 million hours of science enrichment to at least 25,000 youth in all 50 states.
  • Intel Corp. has committed to a 10-year, $200 million campaign to support teaching in math and science.
  • Raytheon Co. will leverage its unique expertise in modeling and simulation to expand its national “STEM Modeling Tool” to the state level, empowering policymakers to identify promising STEM education policies.
  • In partnership with Lockheed Martin Corp. and Military Child Education Coalition, the National Math Science Initiative will announce a new effort to expand access to Advanced Placement classes in STEM subjects to public high schools that serve a large number of military families.
  • A “Bridge to Science” Program with Nature Publishing will make a three-year, $5.5 million commitment to a series of programs to build stronger connections between parents, students, and scientists, including the creation of an online platform for parents and children to become “citizen scientists.”

Thanks in part to these public-private partnerships, President Obama announced this week the goal of recruiting 10,000 new STEM teachers in the next two years, a down payment towards the president’s goal of training 100,000 new STEM teachers by decade’s end.

These investments in science, technology, engineering, and math education are not only a good use of public resources, but they are essential elements driving of sustained growth in today’s global and innovation-driven economy. No pledge, plan, or platform for securing America’s long-term prosperity can possibly fulfill its goals without addressing these critical issues.

Sean Pool is Special Assistant for Energy, Science, and Technology Policy at the Center for American Progress. Austin Frerick, an intern with CAP’s Education Policy team, contributed invaluable research to this article.

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