North America’s Progress Starts in the Classroom
Can North America realize its potential? Yes, but maximizing the economic power of North America will require meeting the education challenges facing the continent and each nation.
The Catalyst asked a variety of experts to answer this question: What educational challenge stands in the way of this being the North American Century?
As you will see in this package, contributors from Canada, the United States, and Mexico share their perspectives on everything from how North America stacks up educationally to countries around the world, to education reforms in Mexico, to getting more students mastering languages and studying across borders. We present these essays - along with more in our upcoming Catalyst After Hours, which appears between quarterly issues — as a way for us all to think about how North America can realize its potential.
Interim President and Senior Vice President, George W. Bush Presidential Center
"Across the North American continent we are seeing a gradual slowdown in educational progress relative to the rest of the world. This slowdown stands in the way of this being the North American Century and is especially troublesome since our economic wellbeing depends on our ability to compete internationally." Read full article
Vice President for Policy, North America and Cybersecurity; Business Council of Canada
"It is important to create opportunities for students to study across borders. The knowledge gathered and relationships built will go a long way to creating a mindset of trade and collaboration." Read full article
Director of Strategy & International Affairs at the SMU Cox School of Business’ Latino Leadership Initiative
"Bilingualism is the greatest educational challenge for North American integration. The three official languages spoken in the neighborhood (English, French, and Spanish) are the first and most complicated barriers to overcome." Read full article
Chairman, Center of Research for Development
"The ability to innovate largely stems from an educational system that is geared toward developing critical thinking. Mexico’s educational system is not geared in this direction." Read full article
Holly Kuzmich: No Excuses for Average Educational Performance
Across the North American continent we are seeing a gradual slowdown in educational progress relative to the rest of the world. This slowdown stands in the way of this being the North American Century and is especially troublesome since our economic wellbeing depends on our ability to compete internationally.
Mexico, the United States, and Canada all participate in the Program for International Student Assessment,or PISA as it is known. Mexico has the most progress to make, performing the lowest of our three North American countries, with the United States in the middle of the pack and Canada as the top performer compared to other developed countries around the world.
The most recent PISA results show some areas for concern. Canada’s students are slipping, especially in math and science; scores in math have dropped by 14 points since 2003. The United States has nothing to crow about, with average scores that are 25 points lower in reading and 37 points lower in math than Canada. And Mexico’s reading scores have been flat, but some progress has been made in math scores.
At the same time as we see these middling results, we know that the challenge will only grow. Our continent is becoming more diverse and will need to address the challenge of an increasingly majority minority population, which is especially true in the United States. Census data projects that by the year 2024, the percentage of white students enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools will be 46%, down from 59% in 2002.
One of the great strengths of the United States since our founding, and of the North American continent overall, has been our belief that immigrants play a positive role in continued economic growth and prosperity. But that principle seems to be at risk in today’s political rhetoric. I worry that the increasing diversity of our nation will be used to limit the flow of people across our borders or excuse average educational performance.
At the same time, I am optimistic about our potential if we focus our efforts. Despite our less than stellar outcomes on the PISA, we can achieve more when we train teachers, principals, and administrators with the best research-based practices on what works to raise student achievement, and then hold them accountable for results.
In looking at countries that have made the most significant gains on PISA, a few themes emerge.
First, countries that have made progress have targeted resources to the most disadvantaged schools. Next, these countries have focused on improving the quality of teaching. While we can point to some progress on outcomes over the past few decades when we’ve focused on our lowest performing schools and students, we’ve taken our foot off the gas in terms of a major national focus on these issues. And we wonder why we are slipping internationally.
We often hope that international assessments like PISA provide an incentive for action and progress. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment, but I hope for the future of our continent, we soon get our act together. Our future depends on it.
Holly Kuzmich, Interim President and Senior Vice President of the George W. Bush Presidential Center , served as a top official at the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. She also focused on education issues during her tenure on the White House Domestic Policy Council.
One of the paradoxes of deepening North American economic integration is that it has never been harder to move people across our borders.
Our economy is increasingly grounded in “trade in tasks.” The production of goods and provision of services is broken down to an ever finer level as supply chains spread across our continent. The carrying out of these tasks requires a significant movement of human capital, or a “brain circulation,” that provides benefits to firms and countries. Yet Canada, the United States, and Mexico retain significant barriers to people moving across borders.
Immigration is a complicated and politically fraught area, especially in the United States. With seemingly no viable path for the time being to comprehensive reform, we should look for creative interim solutions to get professionals to where their skills are needed.
Within North America, the temporary entry of non-immigrants is grounded in the list of professionals authorized by the North American Free Trade Agreement. The list for special visas, however, is more than 20 years out of date. It includes only one information technology-related profession: computer systems analyst. The list also excludes most skilled trades.
These antiquated omissions are undermining the utility of NAFTA for many parts of the economy. Despite the policy rationale for updating the professionals list, the politics have rendered this all but impossible for the time being.
Given these constraints, what should be the go-forward agenda for getting human capital where it is needed in North America?
Professional associations should develop common standards and professional designations. Having foreign professionals meet local standards is an essential prerequisite to their ability to deliver services in that country.
Maximize the flexibility of our current rules. Trade agreements can evolve in their application as the interests of the parties and market structures change. There have been numerous technical examples where the parties have agreed to understand NAFTA differently than is expressly written in the text. We should explore how far we can push this evolutionary approach.
Experiment where shortages exist. One excellent model is “Helmets to Hardhats,” in which the Canadian government worked to link up U.S. veterans with jobs in a booming oil sands market. The key is to get buy in from local communities, employers, and labor leaders.
Encourage each country to adopt a “72-hour rule” for visa-free, work-related entry. Too often, people, including those simply attending meetings, are held up at the border over concerns that they are “working.” Nobody is taking a job from a local in three days’ work. Facilitating short-term entry removes unpredictability and expands the availability of service providers to conduct needed “tasks.”
Grow cross-border educational partnerships. If we want to build an integrated North American market for skilled professionals, it is important to create opportunities for students to study across borders. The knowledge gathered and relationships built will go a long way to creating a mindset of trade and collaboration.
There is no silver bullet for resolving North America’s human capital challenges. Until the politics change, we should at least focus on getting the most out of existing rules and experimenting with how to make things measurably better.
Eric Miller is Vice President for Policy, North America and Cybersecurity at the Business Council of Canada.
I met Robert Pastor in 2014, years after the professor and director of American University's Center for North American Studies published The North American Idea. Pastor studied the integration of North America, the exchange of not only commerce but of people and ideas.
During our conversation, we agreed on the strength of this neighborhood, as I call North America, and the need for a deeper cultural understanding between U.S. and Mexico. As a naturalized American, born and raised in Mexico, I told Pastor that my experience living in both countries showed me firsthand the strength of integration. I believe there is far more in common between the countries than there are differences, yet so much is lost in translation. Personally, it was my bilingualism that made my transition a successful one.
Bilingualism is the greatest educational challenge for North American integration. The three official languages spoken in the neighborhood (English, French, and Spanish) are the first and most complicated barriers to overcome.
Beyond the need for more educational exchanges and integrated educational systems, the critical issue is the ability for students, scholars, and policymakers to communicate in each other’s languages. Our continent should actively promote bilingualism. We should develop and support the following educational opportunities to learn the languages of our neighborhood:
- Mandatory language immersion programs in public schools;
- Evaluation of language proficiencies in each country;
- Changing higher education curriculums to require language proficiencies for a significant percentage of college graduates; and
- Targeted implementation of training programs for influencers that can help us spread bilingualism (i.e. school teachers, community leaders, etc.).
Language competencies bring about greater cultural understanding but beyond that there are tangible economic benefits that we must consider. For example, in 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an insufficient number of workers in engineering fields to meet market demands.
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2013, of the over 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees conferred in the U.S., only 5.5 percent were in engineering and engineering technologies (NCES, 2014). In contrast, the Mexican National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions reported that in the 2014-2015 academic cycle, Mexico produced 121,992 graduates in engineering, approximately 24 percent of all the conferred bachelor’s degrees. Because of the lack of job opportunities in Mexico, many of these engineers are underemployed.
This example demonstrates that the human capital needs in the U.S. and the underemployment challenges in Mexico can be solved by working together. Setting aside issues with immigration and visas, the question is how many of these Mexican engineers have the English proficiency to succeed in the U.S. work force? The director for the Mexican Institute for Competiveness reported in 2015 that only 5 percent of the Mexican population speaks English. Therein lies the language dilemma for North America.
How can we integrate economically, if our educational challenges go beyond our ability to exchange, promote, and develop talent, but rather stems from a lack of training in our neighboring languages? Can North America become bilingual or trilingual?
Our future economic success might depend on our ability to communicate with each other. The resources spent educationally to achieve such a goal might seem large, but the benefits of bilingualism far outweigh the costs.
In this global world, language competencies will prove critical for economic success. In order to build the continental idea Dr. Pastor so eloquently spoke about, we must focus on the language barriers that currently divide us, but can go a long way to integrate us.
Luisa M. del Rosal is Director of Strategy & International Affairs at the SMU Cox School of Business’ Latino Leadership Initiative.
The transition from the agricultural era to the Industrial Revolution was traumatic for many around the world, but the digital era constitutes a nearly absolute divide. In this new era, education is the crucial differentiating factor. Creativity makes a person successful and advances the economy and larger society.
Education determines the capacity to add value. This is true not only in highly technological sectors of the economy, such as software development or the sciences. It also is true in traditional production, which has become highly automated and requires special skills, computer mastery and other similar abilities.
The ability to innovate largely stems from an educational system that is geared toward developing critical thinking. Mexico’s educational system is not geared in this direction. Much worse, there is only minimal understanding of what this stage would entail. An educational system focused on developing the abilities of children to the utmost would involve focusing of freedom, individual development, and challenging paradigms, all anathema to a control-oriented political system.
True, part of Mexico’s industry has successfully transitioned to the knowledge economy, but it remains a relatively minor part. Most Mexicans are not yet involved, the reason that the average value added in this Mexican sector remains relatively low when compared with that of its NAFTA partners. No surprise here.
Public education in Mexico, which covers about 90% of students in its primary and secondary stages, was conceived not as an instrument of personal advancement. It was conceived as an instrument to attain political objectives. Education was intended to legitimize the regime that emerged from the Mexican Revolution a century ago. As a result, it became a system of indoctrination and political control.
The teachers’ union would come to control the educators and then sell that service to the government. This process created extremely powerful union bosses who eventually challenged the government, only to later be forced into submission and replaced, restarting the vicious circle.
The cycle of conflict, decapitation, collaboration, and back to conflict was repeated time and time again. Mexico’s current government is reaping the benefits of the decapitation stage after it jailed the previous teachers' union leader, Elba Esther Gordillo. But the cycle will remain unstoppable until and unless the entire structure of the educational system is reconceived and reorganized.
The latest educational reform, which took place in 2013, was mostly a labor reform. It aims at restructuring and redefining the relationship between the government and the teachers’ union. This reform constitutes a precondition for a more ambitious transformation that actually addresses the enormous importance of education in the digital era.
Of course, there are some rhetorical concessions to the needs of a modern economy. But most of that is limited to discussing the curricula and subjects that students must learn, not the role of education in the digital era. Old habits die hard.
For a true revolution in education to take root, the challenge first has to be understood and assimilated and then, a new world imagined. That, unfortunately, is not part of the prevailing script. A stronger foundation of mathematics, language, and, ideally, the humanities, would force children to think big, look towards the outside, and to the future. In one word, to imagine a different life and to acquire the skills to make it possible, all of which would challenge the existing orthodoxy.
After all, the political stability and control the educational system has helped provide has been extraordinarily useful for one government after another. Contemplating a drastic change would require an understanding of the stakes if Mexico fails to prepare its children for the digital era. Or, conversely, it would require an understanding of what could happen if Mexico prepared its children so they can grow up within the context of freedom. Pursuing a transformation also would require a willingness to undertake profound reforms in Mexico's political structure.
A true educational revolution in the digital era would call for a thorough redefinition of society and politics. No wonder the recent reform to date has been strictly limited to labor relations.
Luis Rubio is Chairman of the Center of Research for Development, an independent research institution devoted to the study of economic and political policy issues. Along with writing regularly on political, economic and international subjects, he has been planning director of Citibank in Mexico, an adviser to Mexico's Secretary of the Treasury, and a Wilson Center fellow.