Gates testimony before Senate panel

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  • New York City has opened close to 200 new schools in the last five years, with many replacing some of the city's most underperforming schools. The first set of new schools achieved an average 79% graduation rate compared to graduation rates ranging from 31% to 51% at the schools they replaced.
  • Boston's business, education and civic leaders have made a commitment to dramatically increase the number of young people ready for college and career. A winner of the Broad Prize this year, Boston has increased math scores on the 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress at a faster rate than other large American cities participating in NAEP's Trial Urban District Assessment. The number of AP math and English exams taken by minority students is up more than 200% for Latino students and 78% for African-Americans since 2002.
  • Early College High Schools are perhaps the most innovative and groundbreaking initiative under way nationally and show all of us what we can do if we think differently. The early college model is counterintuitive to most, at least initially. The approach is to recruit traditionally low-performing, struggling students to attend high schools that require enrollment in college courses. The schools provide the corresponding support and guidance for students to graduate with two years of college credit and/or an associate's degree. Today, there are more than 125 early college high schools in operation in over 20 states, and there are plans to open up to 45 more by 2008. So far, among the first class of ninth graders at the original three Early College high schools, over 95% graduated with a high school diploma, over 57% have earned an associate's degree, and over 80% have been accepted into four-year colleges.

I encourage all of you to visit any of these school models or districts and see this innovation first hand.

These pockets of success are exciting. But they alone cannot transform our education systems. Doing that will take political and public will. When people learn about the problems with our high schools, and they hear about the possibility of success, they demand change. That is why the Gates Foundation has joined with the Broad Foundation to support the Strong American Schools Partnership. This partnership, which will be formally launched later this month, is intended to express America's shared vision that we need to demand more for our children now so that they will be more prepared and more successful as adults.

B. Promoting math and science education

Another area where America is falling behind is in math and science education. We cannot possibly sustain an economy founded on technology pre-eminence without a citizenry educated in core technology disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, engineering and the physical sciences. The economy's need for workers trained in these fields is massive and growing. The U.S. Department of Labor has projected that, in the decade ending in 2014, there will be over 2 million job openings in the United States in these fields. Yet in 2004, just 11% of all higher education degrees awarded in the U.S. were in engineering, mathematics and the physical sciences -- a decline of about a third since 1960.

Recent declines are particularly pronounced in computer science. The percentage of college freshmen planning to major in computer science dropped by 70% between 2000 and 2005. In an economy in which computing has become central to innovation in nearly every sector, this decline poses a serious threat to American competitiveness. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that every significant technological innovation of the 21st century will require new software to make it happen.

The problem begins in high school. International tests have found our fourth graders among the top students in the world in science and above average in math. By eighth grade, they have moved closer to the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students score near the bottom of all industrialized nations. Too many students enter college without the basics needed to major in science and engineering. Part of our effort to transform the American high school for the 21st century must focus on reversing this trend and improving education in math and sciences.

I believe our schools can do better. High schools are emerging around the country that focus on math and science, and they are successfully engaging students who have long been underrepresented in these fields -- schools like the School of Science and Technology in Denver, Aviation High School in Seattle and University High School in Hartford, Connecticut. These schools have augmented traditional teaching methods with new technologies and a rigorous, project-centered curriculum, and their students know they are expected to go on to college. This combination is working to draw more young people, especially more African-American and Hispanic young people, to study math and science.

Schools are also partnering with the private sector to strengthen secondary school math and science education, and I want to mention one recent initiative in particular with which Microsoft has been involved. It is called the Microsoft Math Partnership, and it is a public-private initiative designed to focus new attention on improving middle school math education. Although the program is currently focused on schools in Washington State, we believe this partnership provides a sound model for public-private sector efforts across America.

To remain competitive in the global economy, we must build on the success of these schools and initiatives and commit to an ambitious national agenda for high school education. But we also must focus on post-secondary education. College and graduate students are simply not obtaining science, technology, engineering and mathematics ("STEM") degrees in sufficient numbers to meet demand. The number of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded in the United States fell by about 17% between 1985 and 2004.

This decline is particularly alarming when we look at educational trends in other countries. In other countries, a much greater percentage of college degrees are in engineering than in the U.S. If current trends continue, a significant percentage of all scientists and engineers in the world will be working outside of the U.S. by 2010.

For years, the decline in the percentage of graduate degrees awarded to American students in science, technology, engineering and math was offset by an increase in the percentage of foreign students obtaining these degrees. But new security regulations and our obsolete immigration system -- which I will address in a moment -- are dissuading foreign students from studying in the United States. Consider this: Applications to U.S. graduate schools from China and India have declined and fewer students are taking the Graduate Record Exam required for most applicants to U.S. graduate schools. The message here is clear: We can no longer rely on foreign students to ensure that America has enough scientists and engineers to satisfy the demands of an expanding economy.

Tackling this problem will require determination by government and support by industry. The goal should be to "[d]ouble the number of science, technology and mathematics graduates by 2015." Achieving this goal will require both funds and innovative ideas. For high schools, we should aim to recruit 10,000 new science and mathematics teachers annually and strengthen the skills of existing teachers. To expand enrollment in post-secondary math and science programs, we should provide 25,000 new four-year, competitive undergraduate scholarships each year to U.S. citizens attending U.S. institutions and fund 5,000 new graduate fellowships each year. America's young people must come to see STEM degrees as opening a window to opportunity. If we fail at this, we simply will be unable to compete with the emerging innovative powerhouses abroad.

C. Greater opportunities for job training

Even as we work to improve educational opportunities in our school systems and universities, we cannot lose sight of the need to constantly upgrade and enhance the skills and expertise of those people already in our workforce. Securing America's global competitiveness requires not only a highly educated pool of innovators, but also a workforce that is equipped with the skills necessary to use technology effectively. In today's economy, that means a high degree of basic literacy, an increasing level of computing skills, and the ability to create, analyze and communicate knowledge.

Over the next several years, six out of every 10 new jobs will be in professional and service-related occupations. Given the state of our educational system, it is not surprising that U.S. companies are reporting serious shortages of skilled workers. According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Education study, only 13% of American adults are proficient in the knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend and use information, or to perform computational tasks. This yawning gap between America's economic needs and the skills of its workforce indicates that as a nation we are not doing nearly enough to equip and continuously improve the capabilities of American workers.

Part of this task must fall to the private sector. For its part, Microsoft over the past decade has launched a range of both commercial and philanthropic programs aimed at providing IT skills training to U.S. workers. Our commercial offerings include the Microsoft Learning program, which provides IT skills training and certification in cooperation with hundreds of commercial partners, and the Microsoft IT Academy, which provides online IT training programs and other resources to accredited educational institutions across the United States.

But several years ago, we decided to focus our community outreach programs to support training in basic computing and Internet skills -- a program we call Unlimited Potential. Through this program, we provide the curriculum, software and grants to support digital skills training in community learning centers run by government and nongovernment agencies throughout the country and around the world. For example, last year, Microsoft partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor to provide $3.5 million in cash and software to 20 of the department's One-Stop Career Centers located throughout the country. We also donated our innovative Digital Literacy curriculum to those centers to advance their technology training mission. We have similar partnerships with the Boys and Girls Clubs, the National Urban League, and with many development agencies and NGOs in more than 100 countries.

In combination with our parallel program for school-based training, Partners in Learning, our ambition is to reach a quarter of a billion people by the end of this decade. Meanwhile, we have begun reaching out to other companies, industry associations and state agencies to build a workforce alliance that will promote the digital skills needed to compete in a wide range of industry and service sectors.

As a nation, our goal should be to ensure that, by 2010, every job seeker, every displaced worker and every individual in the U.S. workforce has access to the education and training they need to succeed in the knowledge economy. This means embracing the concept of "lifelong learning" as part of the normal career path of American workers, so that they can use new technologies and meet new challenges. Neither industry nor government can achieve these goals if we act alone. Federal, state and local governments must help to prepare all of our workers for the jobs required in a knowledge economy. Workforce enhancement should be treated as a matter of national competitive survival. It is a down payment on our future, an extremely vital step to secure American competitiveness for future generations and to honor the American ideal that every single one of us deserves the opportunity to participate in America's success.

II. Attracting and retaining the world's best and brightest

For generations, America has prospered largely by attracting the world's best and brightest to study, live and work in the United States. Our success at attracting the greatest talent has helped us become a global innovation leader, enriched our culture and created economic opportunities for all Americans.

Unfortunately, America's immigration policies are driving away the world's best and brightest precisely when we need them most. I appreciate the vital national security goals that motivate many of these policies. I am convinced, however, that we can protect our national security in ways that do less damage to our competitiveness and prosperity. Moreover, the terrible shortfall in our visa supply for the highly skilled stems not from security concerns, but from visa policies that have not been updated in over a decade and a half. We live in a different economy now. Simply put: It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals -- many of whom are educated at our top colleges and universities -- that the United States does not welcome or value them. For too many foreign students and professionals, however, our immigration policies send precisely this message.

This should be deeply troubling to us, both in human terms and in terms of our own economic self-interest. America will find it infinitely more difficult to maintain its technological leadership if it shuts out the very people who are most able to help us compete. Other nations are recognizing and benefiting from this situation. They are crafting their immigration policies to attract highly talented students and professionals who would otherwise study, live and work here. Our lost opportunities are their gains.

I personally witness the ill effects of these policies on an almost daily basis at Microsoft. Under the current system, the number of H-1B visas available runs out faster and faster each year. The current base cap of 65,000 is arbitrarily set and bears no relation to U.S. industry's demand for skilled professionals. For fiscal year 2007, the supply did not last even eight weeks into the filing period, and ran out more than four months before that fiscal year even began.

For fiscal year 2008, H-1Bs are expected to run out next month, the first month that it is possible to apply for them. This means that no new H-1B visas -- often the only visa category available to recruit critically needed professional workers -- will be available for a nearly 18-month period. Moreover, this year, for the first time in the history of the program, the supply will run out before the year's graduating students get their degrees. This means that U.S. employers will not be able to get H-1B visas for an entire crop of U.S. graduates. We are essentially asking top talent to leave the U.S.

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