Logo: University of Southern California

California's Educational Crisis

Academic leaders, middle and high school teachers, industry reps and organizations dedicated to improving STEM education gather for a two-day summit at USC

September 25, 2008 — USC co-hosted a two-day summit along with the Competitiveness Crisis Council Sept. 19-20 to address the challenges facing California's education system with thought leaders in industry, academia, and the community at large.

The conference, entitled “Education Crisis Summit: Securing Our Competitiveness in a Global Market,” was designed to develop a set of specific recommendations to improve the education system in California, and to send a call-to-action to all California stakeholders.  Educators, administrators, corporate leaders, and legividslators interested in math and science education from kindergarten through the Ph.D. level opened the summit with a report on the state of education in California, citing insufficient funding, resource inequities and persistent achievement gaps among population segments, and a lack of qualified teachers in the key areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as major contributors to the shortage of science and engineering-bound students.
Day 1 Morning Panel Cropped
Morning panelists, left to right: Warren Baker, president, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Thelma Melendez, superintendent, Pomona Unified School District; David Brewer, superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District; Charles Reed, chancellor, the California State University system; Michael Ortiz, president, Cal Poly Pomona; James Rosser, president, Cal State L.A.

“As developing countries like China and India continue to produce a technical workforce at a greater pace than the United States, our standing as one of the world's largest economies continues to drop.  This is largely because we are not keeping pace with the demand for science, technology, engineering and math workers,” said Mitchell Suarez, chairman of the Competitiveness Crisis Council. “The state’s pre-school through university education system has a strategically vital role to play in securing California’s economic future. We must develop qualified talent to meet the technical workforce demand crisis in the US and address the challenges posed by the global economy.”

In the opening session on the state of education in California, Thelma Melendez, superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District, stressed the importance of finding new ways to reach the large and growing population of Latino students in public school.  Ten million Latinos are currently enrolled in the nation’s schools, she said.  Their growth rate nearly doubled between 1990 and 2006, a growth rate that is expected to continue for decades.  In California, Latinos will comprise 40 percent of the population by 2020.

Melendez called the crisis in education a problem of “watered-down expectations,” a theme that was reiterated by many panelists throughout the conference.  “We believe that anyone can learn and enjoy science and mathematics,” she said.  “This is not an achievement gap, it is an expectation gap.”
Day 1 Audience Cropped
 Attendees listen to morning panel.

Pomona Unified School District is home to 42 schools and 31,000 students. Melendez said nearly 80 percent of the students are Latino and almost half do not speak English.  To improve education in STEM fields, the district has instituted a STEM initiative to build new academic programs, train science and mathematics teachers and give students hands-on experience in science and engineering.  Career ladders and academies, a new magnet school, workshops at Pomona High School and Cal Poly Pomona and supplemental training for science and math teachers have been introduced to bolster middle school education and better prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow’s technological workforce.

Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, echoed her sentiments, noting that the universities cannot improve if the K-12 school system doesn’t improve.

“Low expectations are a real disease,” he told 150 participants on the first day of the summit. “The U.S. has slipped in the world and we’re not competitive any longer. That’s a crisis. We have to act with urgency and passion, and we’ve got to do things differently.”

Panelists also included Warren Baker, president of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Michael Ortiz, president of Cal Poly Pomona; James Rosser, president of California State University Los Angeles and David Brewer, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Ortiz said the reality is that most college-bound high school graduates are not prepared for college or the market place, and the cost of remediation programs at the university level tops $2.9 billion a year.  “There has to be political will to make changes,” he said, “but the biggest opposition to change comes from groups who are resisting accountability.”
Day 1 Yortsos Cropped
Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos led the STEM solutions panel.

In discussing their views on specific ways to move forward collaboratively, Brewer, a retired Navy vice admiral and current superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said he instituted five guiding principles to improve achievement in the majority Latino student body when he came into the job two years ago:  research and data, professional development, innovation, parent involvement and safety.
“You can’t have a world-class education unless you have a world-class staff,” he said. “You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”

Katherine Alston, project manager of Customized Technology Services, an engineering consulting group for aerospace and engineering firms, said perhaps the challenge is not the educational system itself, but the lack of quality information children nowadays receive through the mass media. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alston had a hard time convincing her now 21-year-old son to see the benefit in attending college.

Day 1 Audience Pic Cropped
A captivated audience in the Davidison Conference Center.
“When children’s minds are being filled with junk, they produce junk,” she said.

Lilibeth Gangas, a Latina conference organizer and graduate of the Viterbi School of Engineering, urged the audience to mentor students and to expand their research to the community colleges. The path to leadership must be “visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” added Rosser, president of the California State University, Los Angeles. Cal State L.A. has invested in quality and a diverse faculty to support an equally diverse student population, and has implemented measures that encourage students of color to pursue doctoral programs.

“We have graduated more African-Americans who went on to get PhDs than any other university west of the Mississippi,” Rosser said. “We champion diversity with excellence as an institutional value.”
Day 2 Tech Fair Demo Cropped
The Technology Fair was sponsored in part by the Viterbi School, along with industry and government partners, which provided displays and exhibits of interest to the kids.   

In a light-hearted, sometimes humorous presentation called “The Three ‘R’s of Innovation,”  Krisztina Holly, executive director of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation, said sometimes professionals are so focused on getting the job done that they don’t see the big picture. To illustrate her point, she showed a video where two teams, one wearing white t-shirts and the other black t-shirts, were passing the ball among each other. The audience was asked to count how many times the white t-shirt team passed the ball to others. In the middle of the ball tossing, a gorilla walks into the room and beats its chest. But would the audience notice, given their task?

She hit the lights, then asked: “Did anybody notice anything weird about the video?” After the silence, she asked again, “Did anybody notice the gorilla in the room?”

No, not really…..they were too busy counting passes. Sometimes, Holly said, innovation is not knowledge but imagination. She cited the work of George de Mestral, who was inspired to invent Velcro after plucking burr seeds from the paws of his dog; or Steve Jobs, who dropped out of Reed College but turned his calligraphy lessons into an attractive feature of Apple computers.
Day 1 Woman In Audience Cropped
Conference attendee.

Holly’s three “R”s of innovation were: Recess (take a hike with your dog or take a calligraphy lesson); Risk: embrace failure and change; and Reason: ask why and make sure you’re asking the right questions.

In afternoon sessions, Rossier School of Education Dean Karen Symms Gallagher introduced the film 2 Million Minutes and moderated a discussion about the documentary, which compared the high school years (2 million minutes) of six students in the U.S., India and China.  Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos then moderated a panel discussion on STEM solutions.

Yortsos delineated the three fundamental challenges facing the educational system in the United States: sustaining the capacity for technological innovation, attracting young people to careers in engineering, and improving the technological literacy of the general population.

“Sustaining capacity for technological innovation is obviously of fundamental importance when you have a global economy that is knowledge-driven,” he said.  “How technological innovation transforms knowledge into products, processes and services is critical to competitiveness.”

Although USC does not have a problem attracting engineering students – nor do other elite research institutions – that’s not the case among the general population, Yortsos said.  And that’s a widespread problem that gets compounded when key educators – such as high school counselors – lack the necessary knowledge to steer students into STEM careers.

Yortsos also stressed the importance of raising the technological literacy of the general public.
Day 1 Afternoon STEM Panel Cropped
Afternoon STEM panel, left to right: Gary Toyama, vice president, Southern California Region, The Boeing Company; Karen Symms Gallagher, dean, USC Rossier School; Jack Gregg, executive director, California Space Education and Workforce Institute; David Evans, executive director, The Aerospace Corp.; Janet English, director of educational services, KOCE-TV.  Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos (not in photo) was speaking at the podium.

“One needs to change the conversation,” he said. “No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like engineering. Engineers make a world of difference.”

Others on the panel included Janet English, director of educational services at KOCE-TV; David Evans, general manager of the Aerospace Corporation; Jack Gregg, executive director of the California Space Education and Workforce Institute; and Gary Toyama, vice president, Southern California Region, The Boeing Company.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering co-sponsored the event, along with the USC Rossier School of Education and USC Stevens Institute, in partnership with the Competitiveness Crisis Council (CCC).  CCC is a coalition of corporations, educators and Hispanic engineering organizations dedicated to building a pipeline of qualified technical talent in the United States.  For more information about CCC, visit www.competecalifornia.com.