This morning's Wall Street Journal op-ed page Notable & Quotable section contained an interesting excerpt from education reporter Jay Matthews' current Wilson Quarterly article on US schools and the US economy.
It's no secret that American schools are not producing as many top-rated engineers, mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists and the like as our economy requires. However, Matthews points out that perhaps our statistics on the engineering gap are, dare I say it, more evidence of our problem with math.
Article after article (and the US Dept of Education) has noted that China turns out 600,000 engineers a year, and India 350,000. The US? Just 70,000. However, the China numbers come from the China Statistical Yearbook, a government publication which seems to be exaggerating. As Matthews notes, a later McKinsey Global Institute report found that about half of those engineers would be considered mere technicians in the US. The 350,000 in India figure -- originally calculated by Fortune magazine -- has not been reproduced, and the NSF claims it's likely lower.
A 2005 Duke report, apparently, found that the US graduates 137,437 engineers with at least a bachelor's degree a year. India cranks out 112,000, and China 351,537. Yes, that Chinese number is higher, but China's population is well over three times that of the US. A Washington Post article quoted educational psychologist Gerald W. Bracey as saying that "That's more U.S. degrees per million residents than in either other nation."
The point is not that the US shouldn't be concerned about our supply of engineers. My guess is that American colleges are cranking out more "recreation" or "leisure" studies majors than top-notch engineering graduates.
But those of us who write about education should be careful not to use hyperbole when we don't need to. The truth is, a lot of the talk about losing our scientific edge amounts to concerns about how immigration has changed. These days, top scientists may come to the US for a while, get a green card, and then move around between the US and their home countries in a more circular fashion. This is a trend in the internationalization of science, and needs to be discussed in its own right, rather than relying too much on national numbers (though they do look good in op-eds!)