Anyone who cares about the economic future of Florida’s children should take a serious look at this morning’s Orlando Sentinel op-ed on the nation’s H1-B visa policy by YuKong Zhao.
This is the core of Zhao’s argument for expanding the H1-B visa program:
With the decline of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, America is failing to educate enough home-grown engineers to support the rapidly growing high-tech firms, which are the No. 1 growth engine of the American economy in recent decades. In my view, many of the engineers in these companies are foreign born, as are many professors in STEM departments of American colleges. Today, high-skilled immigrants have become the backbone of American ingenuity.
Zhao is – almost certainly unintentionally – throwing down the gauntlet in front of Florida’s educators.
Zhao is arguing that our own students aren’t well enough prepared to fill the roles that the American economy needs to stay in the lead on innovation. He continues that since our own education system has failed in this way, we must expand our recruiting of foreign-born engineers to fill these roles.
Is Zhao right about the decline of STEM education, at least in Florida?
In our state, high school physics enrollments have declined 8% in the last three years. Our high schools are slowly being starved by the growing shortage of new math teachers.
Worse yet, the majority of Florida’s education policy-makers don’t seem aware of or concerned by this decline. The only proposal addressing Florida’s teacher shortage that is advancing in the Florida Legislature this session is a self-delusional shortcut bill that would put a bit of money into teachers of computer science but would ignore the growing shortages of math and science teachers needed to properly prepare students for college majors in computer science (or engineering, for that matter). The superintendent of one Florida school district got away with saying that the students in her district’s engineering academies don’t have time to take “electives” like calculus and physics.
The good news is there is irony in Zhao’s decision to publish his op-ed in Central Florida’s leading news outlet. Orange County’s Calculus Project is the state’s leading effort to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds to compete with the engineers that Zhao wants to import. Seminole and Brevard Counties are Florida’s math and science superpowers.
But most students in much of the rest of the state are being left behind.
The easy, protectionist response to Zhao’s argument is to limit or shut down the H1-B visa program. That is the wrong response.
Instead, Florida’s educators and educational policy-makers should resolve to prepare our students to compete successfully with Zhao’s imported technologists. The challenge involved in doing so is enormous – it involves a shift in our state’s K-12 culture.
But the only other option is to concede that our own children will not have the tools to fill leaderships roles in our technological economy.
That would be tragic.