So just to keep education [spending] flat … is a pretty tough assignment. We have the last 30 years where we doubled what we spent and achievement stayed flat. Our assignment for the next 20 years is to—with spending staying flat, if we do a really good job politically to make sure it doesn’t get cut—that we’re supposed to double achievement. Then you have to say, OK, what is the magic to do that? Well, a good personnel system. You know, if you took a baseball team that said everybody has tenure versus a team that really learns from each other and picks the people who belong on that team, there would be no contest there. So the personnel system can do amazing things. And we are already starting to see that. And the view is that technology can do some amazing things. But that’s the only way I can say with a straight face, yes, education in America can get better despite the financial constraints.
What else can we do to ensure or move the needle with regard to African American participation in the STEM fields?
Well, I think it all comes down to how good the teachers are in 5th through 12th grade. Inner-city schools have the least experienced teachers, the ones least likely to have a background in the subject they’re teaching. If I hadn’t had great teachers during those years I wouldn’t have learned how cool science and math are. In fact, I had a bad biology teacher and it’s only as an adult that I’ve realized, hey, biology might be the most interesting science of all. But I stayed away from it. So the science is interesting, and yet it can be made very uninteresting. If you want to look at the extreme case, the numbers for black males and their interest in that area are really stark. Some people talk about getting more black males to go into teaching. I agree with that. But the absence of teaching that can make it fun … you know, when you get confused, is it a discouraging experience, or does the teacher reach out and make you feel OK about it? How many times do you want to be confused before you figure, hey, this isn’t for me? Particularly if someone else makes it look as if it’s easy for them.