Commentary: “Back to school” crucial for the oil & gas industry…and America is failing

25

That’s the ranking in mathematics of 15 year old students from the US benchmarked against 34 peer countries in a 2009 OECD study.

Think about that:  25 out of 34.

“American Exceptionalism”?

Sure, if that refers to “exceptionally mediocre”.

That study is a little old, but that number has been stuck in my head ever since I saw the results, and it so happens that this time of the year, it’s impossible to miss the activity around “Going Back to School” .  I credit everything I have to my schooling, so that’s a cause I’m really passionate about, and all of these different things lead me this week to want to share some thoughts with you on the state of education and how it relates to the pipeline of new talent to the oil & gas industry.

Currently, the oil & gas industry is facing something called “the Great Crew Change”.  After oil prices crashed in the early 1980’s, no one wanted to go into petroleum engineering.   That left a huge gap in experience levels and a big problem:  there are now many seasoned professionals about to retire, and many people about to join the industry, but relatively few people in between who can help ensure continuity.

How this relates to our dismal 25th place ranking in math is clear:  if the country fails to educate children correctly now, the industry is at risk of facing another Great Crew Change down the line, this one not from lack of interest from qualified students, but rather a lack of qualifications, plain and simple.

Production growth of oil & gas in the US has been incredible in recent years, so much so that some organizations are declaring that we could perhaps be energy independent in the foreseeable future.  Maintaining this momentum will require bright, persistent and dedicated professionals, and molding such people takes years and years of providing challenging training in school.

It would be a shame to lose the ground we’ve gained recently as a result of an unprepared workforce, and of course I’m not even addressing all the other fields (electronics, medicine, aerospace) that require well-trained engineers in order not only to compensate for retirements, but also to contribute valuable innovations!

My experience with education is peculiar in that up until college, my schooling was done almost entirely in French.  I don’t have a “high school diploma”, but rather a French “Baccalauréat”.  To frame the rest of the discussion with regards to the US, here are the main points of France’s system:

Students are funneled early.  There are broadly two tracks to follow:  “general”, and “vocational”, and within those categories (vocational especially) there are many sub-tracks to choose from.  The term “general” is misleading since it encompasses three separate areas of focus:  literature (“Bac L”), economics (“Bac ES”) and science (“Bac S”).  At the end of 10th grade, students will put in a request for a certain track, and will either be accepted or rerouted depending on their grades in the subjects that figure heavily in their desired specialization.

Every track is incredibly rigorous.  In the general track, every student takes the same subjects, of course accounting for breadth and depth.  So, while a science student may have a greater number of math classes and go into greater depth in the subject, they are still expected to take history, geography, and literature every year.  Conversely, a literature student still has to take math every year.

The Baccalauréat exam is grueling, and a true test of knowledge and critical thinking.  This is a national test spread out over about two weeks, and at the end of senior year, every student in a given track (L, ES, S) sits the same test on the same day as everyone else in the country on that particular track.  For every subject, there is a 4 hour long test (called an “épreuve”, literally translated as “ordeal”), as well as oral examinations for some subjects.

Some days there are two tests to take, and there are no multiple choice questions:  for a literature or history exam, there will be a two line question prompting the student to handwrite a four or five page essay answer, and for the math test a question might be broken into several parts, each requiring a step by step proof explaining how to obtain the final answer (here’s the link to this year’s math test).

After all the tests have been taken, they are graded (by hand) by teachers all around the country.  The scores for each student are averaged, and if you pass, congratulations, you’re finished with high school.  If you fail, you have to repeat the year (and the test)!  No system is perfect, but getting through that part of my life set me up very well for everything I’ve done since then.

To this day, graduating from high school is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do academically, and I say that with the experiences of earning an engineering degree from Rice, and then earning both an MBA and a master’s degree in engineering while working full time, almost behind me.

Education is always a top priority here in the US, yet the constant talk about curriculum changes, political influences in text books, and yes, mediocre national test scores, show that no matter how much attention is paid to the educational system prior to university, it’s still completely dysfunctional.

Why is that?

In total contrast, our universities are still the world’s best, and students from all over the globe flock to them.  Having attended three of those universities, I can attest that the standards are extremely high.  Still, I was prepared for those challenges because of the relentless grind I was put through leading up to matriculation, and without that preparation I wouldn’t have fared nearly as well.  As a point of reference, here in the US it’s estimated that up to 60% of students can arrive to college unprepared.

All of the measures states try to implement, from debating the introduction of technology in the classroom to endlessly modifying the curriculum, give the impression that someone’s doing something, but these measures don’t get to the root causes of the problem.

I realize there’s no way I’m going to “fix” the educational system in a few thousand words, but for the good of the oil & gas industry and the country as a whole, it’s imperative that we take a different path than the one we’re on now.  I’d like to propose for your consideration some “pie in the sky” ideas to get our students going again.

There needs to be a national curriculum.  The United States is a huge country, with many different traditions, local histories and cultures.  Nevertheless, there are some things that have nothing to do with where you were born or where you live:  when the Declaration of Independence was signed, how we have evolved as a species, how to solve a quadratic equation…

It’s crazy to me that in the year 2013, the US can maintain the world’s largest economy and military, and yet still cannot agree on a national curriculum.  I suspect that politics are at play here, and this needs to stop:  what constitutes a foundational education should not be up for debate, and actually having a common curriculum that everyone goes through would probably do a lot to foster a common, national identity.

On a more practical level, facts are facts and shouldn’t be up to political interpretation, so let’s make sure that every American student gets an equal chance to learn those facts.

This national curriculum should be difficult…really, really difficult.  Texas contributes very positively to the nation in some ways, but some of the other things that happen here are frankly embarrassing, such as the recent push by some to strike Algebra II from the list of requirements necessary to graduate from high school.

It’s unbelievable that on one hand in this state we want encourage the development of “good”, high-skill jobs (Google and Facebook have offices in Austin), yet suggest that it isn’t necessary to know about logarithms and exponents.

Funny, because I could have sworn that computer programmers used math to do their jobs…

The irony in all of this is that the United States generally, and Texas in particular, always want to project an image of strength and steely determination, yet it seems that when it comes to school, neither want to push students with any sort of demanding curriculum.

Ok, politicians might SAY that’s what they want, but the results show that none of that talk gets carried through into the classroom.

In fact, while I don’t agree with everything the “Tiger Mom” said, I do agree with this:

“Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”

The point is that education is not about ticking boxes, i.e. “high school diploma, check”, “college degree, check”.  Boiling education down to giving out pieces of paper negates the most important part of the educational process:  giving and receiving an education!

That process is hard, but that’s normal:  a bodybuilder has to spend long and grueling hours in the gym to see results, and students must spend long hours mastering tough material to grow.  If we support low standards just to get people to pass, they’ll plateau like the body builders and see no results.

Some people will say that this isn’t fair to students coming from less well-off families who don’t have the necessary support mechanisms to clear the hurdles posed by a much tougher, national curriculum.  Here’s my proposal:  instead of constantly throwing money away to change standards and build a test that everyone can pass, let’s fix the bar high, and then take all the money that’s left to give support to those trying to clear that bar.

Let’s stop pushing “creativity” to compensate for a deficiency in the basics.  By the time I finish school in three months, I’ll have been going to some kind of class for 23 of my 29 years.  Many of those were spent learning formulas, rules, laws and dates and you know what?  I don’t think my “creativity” or “out of the box” thinking suffered one bit.

You’ve probably heard this many times:  “Sure, China is putting out far more engineers than we are, but you know what, here in the US we’re more creative”.

Personally, I welcome any country developing its population, and a more educated China will mean a more robust trading partner for us, but if you really want to frame this as “us vs. them”, think about this:  Chinese students by the millions are (probably right at this moment) exhausting themselves to learn math, physics, rocketry, automotive engineering, or any other high-tech subject you can think of.

When they get done learning the “hard stuff” they’ll get to developing their “soft skills”, and if they attack that with half as much ardor as they’ve tackled everything else (they will), then we’ll really be in trouble.

The truth is, many of today’s most pressing problems DO require creative thinking, but coming up with novel solutions to curing cancer or safely extracting energy is impossible without a solid foundation that’s based on, yes, actually sitting down and learning all of the existing, established information.

If we brush off this required, “rote learning” because it’s not “creative” enough, then we’re ignoring the stories of thousands of immigrants who’ve come to the United States from countries with far stricter curricula than ours and then gone on to found successful businesses.

Yes, America still has the world’s most ideal environment in which to grow a business, but we can’t forget that people need to be adequately trained and prepared to take advantage of that environment, and today on that front it’s my belief that we are failing.

Schools should be for learning only.   The way athletics are treated in high school shows very clearly where our priorities are nationally.  Here’s another example I’d rather not have come from Texas:  a Dallas suburb is building a $60 MILLION football stadium for its high school students.

I’m going to repeat that so that you can let it sink in:

$60 MILLION…on a football stadium…for high school students.

The best estimate I can get is that in Texas it costs about $7,000 each year to educate an elementary student.  Sixty million dollars would sure educate a lot of future petroleum, mechanical, electrical and computer engineers!

The story gets worse when you consider that this stadium is built/condoned with funds approved by the public, and that the school “boasts” an SAT score of 1095, or less than 50% of the perfect score of 2400.

I’ll probably take a lot of heat for this, but I suggest getting rid of all school sponsored athletic programs.

People never act irrationally, they just follow different incentives, and it’s clear that as a society the incentives that we’ve set up are completely distorted.

Education takes practice, and that practice is hard…but so is subjecting oneself to two-a-day football practices in the scorching Texas heat, and yet kids here welcome that every year.

Sports and physical activity in general are great for people of all ages, but I propose that sports clubs outside of school be set up, and funded with some of the public money that would otherwise go to school sports programs.

Students can then play sports on their own time, and schools would be free not only of the full costs of these programs but also the social hierarchies that can arise from them and interfere with the learning process.

Schools should encourage students to strive for a career, rather than just attend college.  I fully understand that for some children, going to college is already a huge achievement, but going back to the issue of incentives and motivation:  is going to university incentive enough?

Think about it:  you struggle to show up and perform in school, and your reward for that is…more school?

Education today has been reduced to nothing more than chasing generic qualifications, but it should be obvious that not all bachelor’s degrees are equal:  the work you put into obtaining the degree and the choices it grants you are far more important than the fact that you possess what amounts to a certificate with your name on it.

There’s definitely merit in learning for learning’s sake, but if schools could display different careers in their hallways rather than school pennants (think “petroleum engineer”, “craftsman”, and “surgeon” rather than “Rice”, “Harvard” and “UT”) it would allow students to see that school and college are not “the end”, but a rather the means to a career that will last a lifetime.

We need to stop placing all the blame on teachers.  It’s unrealistic to think that every teacher will be able to “connect” with every student, and at some point in life people will just have to produce results regardless of who they work with or for.

The act of teaching, of transmitting knowledge, is only one part of the social contract between students and teachers.  The other part, of course, is receiving and acting on that knowledge.  To somehow expect that information will flow magically from teachers’ mouths and turn directly into acquired knowledge in students’ heads is completely unrealistic, and yet I feel that this is everyone’s expectation.

Let’s not forget that in some countries, a girl can be shot for going to school, so when it comes to teachers and educational facilities, we still have it pretty good relative to many other places in the world.  Growing up in the US is a right if you’re born here, but it’s also a privilege many people around the world can only dream about.  The onus should be on US students to make sure that they take full advantage of that privilege.

So what to make of this?

Does it sound hard?

Yes.

Does it sound unpleasant for students?

Yes.

Could it end up being to their benefit?

Yes.

A good, solid education shouldn’t be easy to complete, but that’s exactly what makes it rewarding.

Are we up to the challenge of educating the country’s children in a meaningful, rigorous way?

I sure hope so:  the futures of the oil & gas industry and the US as a whole depend on it.