Op-Ed Columnist: Watching the Jobs Go By

February 11, 2004

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The topic today is the growing furor over the outsourcing of jobs to India - and, more broadly, educational lapses here. One reason for the jobless recovery in the U.S. is that it doesn't make much sense to have an American radiologist, say, examine your X-ray when it can be done so much more cheaply in New Delhi.

Indeed, why should computer software be written, taxes prepared, pathology specimens examined, financial analysis done or homework graded in the U.S., when all of that can be done more cheaply in Bangalore? I.B.M. is moving thousands of jobs to India and China, and Reuters says it will have Indian reporters cover some U.S. companies from there.

All this is unsettling. But to me the alarm seems overwrought - and dangerous, for it is likely to fuel calls for protectionism. A dozen years ago, there was a similar panic about high-tech jobs going abroad, and people said that Asia would be making computer chips while Americans produced potato chips.

Instead, free trade worked. Some autoworkers lost their jobs, but America emerged stronger than ever. Studies by Catherine Mann of the Institute for International Economics suggest that it is the same this time. Outsourcing raises American productivity, gives our economy a boost, increases foreign demand for U.S. products and leaves us better off.

Yet, as an Indian friend, Sunil Subbakrishna, pointed out to me, there is one step we should take in response to this wave of outsourcing: bolster our second-rate education system.

Mr. Subbakrishna, a management consultant specializing in technology, notes that in his native Bangalore, children learn algebra in elementary school. All in all, he says, the average upper-middle-class child in Bangalore finishes elementary school with a better grounding in math and science than the average kid in the U.S.

I saw the same thing when I lived in China and interviewed college applicants there. The SAT wasn't offered in China, so Chinese high school students took the Graduate Record Examinations - intended for would-be graduate students - and many still scored in the 99th percentile in math.

The latest international survey, called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, found that the best-performing eighth graders were, in order, from Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands. The U.S. ranked 19th, just after Latvia. (India and China weren't surveyed.)

"For too many graduates, the American high school diploma signifies only a broken promise," declares a major new study released yesterday by three education policy organizations. Called the American Diploma Project, it found that 60 percent of employers rated graduates' skills as only "fair" or "poor."

The broader problem is not just in schools but society as a whole: There's a tendency in U.S. intellectual circles to value the humanities but not the sciences. Anyone who doesn't nod sagely at the mention of Plato's cave is dismissed as barely civilized, while it's no blemish to be ignorant of statistics, probability and genetics. If we're going to revere Plato, as we should, we should also remember that his academy supposedly had a sign at the entrance: "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here."

In 1957, the Soviet launching of Sputnik frightened America into substantially improving math and science education. I'm hoping that the loss of jobs in medicine and computers to India and elsewhere will again jolt us into bolstering our own teaching of math and science.