Charles Vest
President, NAE; Fmr. President of MIT
10:07

What is the state of the American education system?

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What needs to change?

Charles Vest

Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush. 

Transcript

Question:

Question: What is the state of the American education system?

Transcript:Well let’s start at the top. We still have, without question, the greatest research intensive universities – both our public and private universities – in the world. They really are the envy of the rest of the world. And countries in Asia, countries in Europe, all over the world are trying to emulate them and trying to see if, in short order, they can’t outplay us at our own game. So we have this rather bizarre situation where at the top we really do have the best. And it remains the magnet for the best and brightest around the world as well as from within the United States. But as you go further back down the pipeline so to speak and look at our primary and secondary education, we have a disaster. And why do I say disaster? Because I can tell you if you go to MIT, or Stanford, or Berkeley or what have you, we’ll show you some of the most remarkable undergraduates imaginable. But what’s happening is there’s this awful bifurcation out there where some small subset of our students get outstanding education – some in public schools, some in private schools. But the vast majority, particularly as you know in our inner cities, are just getting shortchanged. It’s that simple. The part of that education system I know the most about is, of course, science and mathematics. We know that in many areas something like 60 percent of our sort of junior high and early high school kids are taking their math and science from people who have no credentials and frequently no interest in the topics. They’re taught in the most extraordinarily boring ways of sort of memorizing a bunch of facts and formulas without understanding its relevance; without getting a shot at understanding the joy of discovering things for yourself. There’s so much we could do. We all know it has to be done. We don’t pay teachers enough. We all say it’s the most important thing we do in society, but yet our marketplace doesn’t reward that, and we don’t recognize excellence in the way we should. So it’s a fairly complicated issue because I’m afraid that at heart it’s largely cultural. It’s not just about dollars and cents. It’s not that nobody knows how to go about it. We do because we’ve got great schools that we can show as examples. But it’s about a national will, a national valuing of education, and a recognition that if we don’t shape these things up, the prospects for the next generation are really not good; and that they are non-linearly felt by those who tend to be of more minority and underserved communities, especially those living in the cores of large cities. So overall it’s a disaster, but can you find some great ones? Absolutely. The question is where’s the will and the investment to take what those schools and teachers who do a great job know how they do it and pour it down across a much larger swath of our primary and secondary education.

Vest: Well let’s start at the top.  We still have, without question, the greatest research intensive universities – both our public and private universities – in the world.  They really are the envy of the rest of the world.  And countries in Asia, countries in Europe, all over the world are trying to emulate them and trying to see if, in short order, they can’t outplay us at our own game.  So we have this rather bizarre situation where at the top we really do have the best.  And it remains the magnet for the best and brightest around the world as well as from within the United States.  But as you go further back down the pipeline so to speak and look at our primary and secondary education, we have a disaster.  And why do I say disaster?  Because I can tell you if you go to MIT, or Stanford, or Berkeley or what have you, we’ll show you some of the most remarkable undergraduates imaginable.  But what’s happening is there’s this awful bifurcation out there where some small subset of our students get outstanding education – some in public schools, some in private schools.  But the vast majority, particularly as you know in our inner cities, are just getting shortchanged.  It’s that simple.  The part of that education system I know the most about is, of course, science and mathematics.  We know that in many areas something like 60 percent of our sort of junior high and early high school kids are taking their math and science from people who have no credentials and frequently no interest in the topics.  They’re taught in the most extraordinarily boring ways of sort of memorizing a bunch of facts and formulas without understanding its relevance; without getting a shot at understanding the joy of discovering things for yourself.  There’s so much we could do.  We all know it has to be done.  We don’t pay teachers enough.  We all say it’s the most important thing we do in society, but yet our marketplace doesn’t reward that, and we don’t recognize excellence in the way we should.  So it’s a fairly complicated issue because I’m afraid that at heart it’s largely cultural.  It’s not just about dollars and cents.  It’s not that nobody knows how to go about it.  We do because we’ve got great schools that we can show as examples.  But it’s about a national will, a national valuing of education, and a recognition that if we don’t shape these things up, the prospects for the next generation are really not good; and that they are non-linearly felt by those who tend to be of more minority and underserved communities, especially those living in the cores of large cities.  So overall it’s a disaster, but can you find some great ones?  Absolutely.  The question is where’s the will and the investment to take what those schools and teachers who do a great job know how they do it and pour it down across a much larger swath of our primary and secondary education.

Question: What needs to change?

Vest: Well the reason I always find that a very difficult question to answer is that I worry that the problem is primarily a cultural problem in which many of these kids, and more importantly their parents and their peers, simply don’t value education; don’t value learning; don’t aspire to be what they really could be.  And that kind of goes back to what I said a little bit earlier.  If we had more of our respected national leaders and our journalists not just sort of paying lip service to education – it’s good – but to really inspire people to raise their vision of what they could become, then we could have a much more fertile ground for building.  So to get to the answer of your question, let me answer it in terms primarily of science and math at that level.  It must be rigorous.  We have to have teachers who actually understand their subject and have enthusiasm for it.  And I’m a little old fashioned in that regard.  I still believe that if a teacher really understands the subject and is personally enthusiastic about it, then she or he has won 80, 85 percent of the battle.  Secondly we’ve got to get in the fields of science and engineering much more into teaching through discovery.  You know even Singapore, which is known as a highly disciplined society, whose average scores in math and science are always way at the top of the international polls while we’re down somewhere between the middle and the bottom, their theme in education today is actually teach less, learn more.  So they are discovering that it’s not just cramming all the information you can into young people.  It’s inspiring them.  It’s helping them to understand what rigor and discipline are, and particularly teaching them to discover things through simple experiments, problem solving.  And every study I’ve seen on young people, and especially interestingly young women, says that unless they see the relevance – how this applies to the world they see, observe, work, live in – their chances of learning it well are much, much lower.  So there’s just a lot that could be done.  We have so many model schools out there that have rigor, strong discipline.  Tell the kids from day one, “We believe in you.  You’re gonna go to college.  You’re going to be something.”  And get them to believe in themselves and then get them the tools.  Young people, they’re all . . . they’re all smart.  They can all do things if they’re inspired and helped along the way.

Question: How can higher education help?

Vest: Well my thinking on this has evolved a little bit.  It’s still pretty simple, but it’s evolved.  Higher education – by which for the moment let’s really mean our universities; not all post secondary education, but our universities – their primary responsibility is to simply be the best that they can possibly be at what they do; their core function – teaching those students, creating opportunity for them.  Having said that, the one thing that this nation could do, is beginning to do, and actually has bills sitting in Congress to do and I hope will be funded this year is to educate science, and math, and computer teachers in those disciplines; not go to education school, but major as a physicist, a chemist, a computer scientist, an electrical engineer and simultaneously get the core subject matter about how to teach, how to communicate.  And that would allow them to become certified and move into secondary schools.  I’m convinced that that is the best thing we can do as a nation to begin to nucleate a core of teachers out there who are really good.  And then hopefully they will bring others along with them.

Second thing is anywhere in industry you say, “Well how should we do A, B, or C?” the first question is, “Well what’s best practice?  Let’s look around.  Let’s find out what’s best practice.”  And that is where I’m convinced that information technology can help out a lot.  So I hope that this nation and through its universities or other organizations – but I think the university is the best position – figure out what really is the best ways of teaching these . . .  What are the best pedagogies?  What are the best materials?  And rather than try to work through all this difficult politics state by state and so forth, simply put them out there on the Web.  Be sure teachers and principals are aware of them.  Create some social networking among the teachers and so forth.  I think we can get good materials out there not teaching through a machine, but putting them in the hands of the teachers and students to shape their local conditions.  We could make a big difference.  So first of all improve the education of teachers, particularly by having them actually major in the disciplines that they’re going to teach; pay them a reasonable salary for performance; and then use our modern technology to get best practice kind of pedagogies and materials out there and put them in their hands.  Those are the two things I would really urge that we do.


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