Some half formed thoughts

by David Safier
The NY Times has an article about conflicts between our immigration laws and our need for the best techies in the world. The story is about a valuable engineer at Google who lives in Canada. He and his wife are both originally from India, but she doesn't have a visa to live here, so the couple is forced to live in Canada.

Soon enough, the article gets into a discussion of our dependence on foreign born techies.

Immigrants like Mr. Mavinkurve are the lifeblood of Google and Silicon Valley, where half the engineers were born overseas, up from 10 percent in 1970. Google and other big companies say the Chinese, Indian, Russian and other immigrant technologists have transformed the industry, creating wealth and jobs.

And inevitably, the subject of our schools comes up:

Mr. Barrett [the chairman of Intel] blames a slouching education system that cannot be easily fixed, but he says a stopgap measure would be to let companies hire more foreign engineers.

Most people nod their heads knowingly at Barrett's statement and say, "Yes, that's why we have to import so many engineers. Our schools suck."

Let me take the other side of this argument and say the quality of our schools isn't the main reason why we have so many immigrants in Silicon Valley, though I'm not entirely convinced I'm right. What I know for sure is that business loves to blame our schools for everything that ails business — I've heard the mantra since I began teaching — but they're often incorrect.

So let me assume our schools aren't to blame and search for other reasons.

Lots of these immigrants working in Silicon Valley got a substantial part of their K-12 educations here, as well as all of their college educations. The guy who's the focus of the story came to the U.S. when he was 14, then went to Harvard. Can we say his entire success is built on his education before he was 14? If so, it wasn't Indian schools that can take pride in his education, since he grew up in Saudi Arabia. I don't hear much about the overwhelming strength of Saudi schools.

I taught immigrant students who graduated at what has to be the top ranks of students anywhere in the world, and they got a good part of their education in U.S. public schools. Yet these students would be included in stories about the superiority of immigrants and the education they got in their home countries.

A huge part of the success of some of the immigrant students I taught had to do with their families. Their parents were often well educated people who made education the primary focus of their children's lives. Given students like that, any adequate school with accelerated classes will produce top notch students who can make it at Harvard or Yale or anywhere in the world.

Since the focus of the NY Times article is an Indian immigrant and they make up a sizable part of the Silicon Valley tech world, it's important to remember that India has a long tradition of mathematical excellence. It's no surprise that India would be a breeding ground for brilliant computer scientists, regardless of how their schools stack up against ours. It's pretty damn paternalistic for us to assume the U.S. should naturally be the origin of the best tech engineers. It's obvious that the more modernized India and other countries become, the more top people they'll produce in every field.

But let's take this one step further. The immigrants who end up as top techies here are not a random assortment of people from their native countries. They're a self selected group. Their parents were part of a small minority who had the gumption to pick up and move here, if they came with their parents. If they came on their own, it's because they were the top of the top in their countries who figured they would have a better chance of achieving fame and fortune here than at home. These brilliant immigrants who seem to leave our native born workers in the dust should be compared only to our most brilliant and ambitious young adults. Let's turn this around. If the top one percent of our native born techies decided to work in India, they'd certainly take the country by storm, and everyone there would marvel at the genius this country produces.

Next, think about what happens when people with different perspectives gather together to create products that no one has thought of before, or to find new solutions to old problems. Getting a group of equally talented people whose different backgrounds cause them to challenge each other's assumptions is exactly what you want. Heterogeneous brilliance is going to trump homogeneous brilliance every time if the goal is innovation. So these immigrants most likely are at the center of some of technological innovation simply because they are immigrants. At home, with like minded people, they might not be as innovative or productive.

One final point. The easy money to be made in our financial sector has lured lots of ambitious young people away from other professions. Face it, only a small sliver of techies ever get rich, while for the past few decades, scads of marginally competent people in the financial world made ridiculous amounts of money. What if some of our most talented people lured by the siren song on filthy lucre had gone into high tech professions instead? I think we'd see lots of them doing very well in Silicon Valley.

I honestly believe our best public schools give their best, brightest and most ambitious students a chance to equal any student educated anywhere in the world. And these "best public schools" I'm talking about aren't rare occurences. You find them all over. It's our mediocre and bad schools that are in need of serious improvement. Our best schools can certainly be improved, but they're pretty damn good.

To blame U.S. schools for the abundance of immigrant tech engineers in Silicon Valley, I believe, is to indulge in very sloppy thinking. And it's important to realize that the business sector encourages this simplistic cause-and-effect thinking because it likes to use schools as a whipping boy for its failings and as an excuse to loosen immigration laws so it can replace home grown employees with immigrants who will accept lower wages.

0 responses to “Some half formed thoughts

  1. David Safier

    Thanks so much for your comments, and welcome to the blog. I think your reasoning makes sense, especially since you don’t think you have the “answers” any more than I do. As I’ve said before, I’m both a strong critic and an ardent supporter of public schools. I’m not blind to their many faults, but I also think they’re our best educational hope. The drop out rate is scandalous, and many of our schools fail to meet their students’ needs. But if you look at what’s happening with the best students at our successful schools, you’ll see that they are being prepared both to move forward in the current job and social world and given opportunities to explore new areas.

    Your comment about “options for creative exploration” is very important. One of the reasons the U.S. has always been a center of world innovation is because of our willingness to see the world as a work in progress that’s constantly changing. I know of no other country that incorporates that sense into its educational system better than we do, for all our flaws. It doesn’t raise students’ standardized test scores, but the world isn’t a “standardized” place.

  2. Bhavani Prasad

    Hi David,

    I got interested in your post about K-12 education in America. First of all, I should say that I am also an Indian immigrant holding H1 visa. I have been working in AZ for some time. If the K thru 12 schools of AZ are any indication, then let me say that they are best equipped schools I have seen(I have visited one of them as a volunteer). The infrastructure of the schools in unmatched by their best schools in third world counterparts back in India.

    But are they competitive in the sheer number or sheer competition among students? This, I am not sure or not knowledgeable of. The school system in US provides kids with so many options for creative exploration – it would be impossible to imagine for myself to put in this system and see where I can end-up. But I don’t think 180 day school year is going to cut it in the barrierless world economy.

    Lets take a region which prides on its educational prowess in India. These are 4 states in southern region of Indian map. The children in this region are most competitive you would see anywhere in the world. Intelligence and racking up of A’s (top %’s) in school is respected – even teachers respect the students -this is hard since a cane is used to punish unworthy or unruly students and not slandered as nerds in front of the whole world from locker room to Hollywood.

    Another point is school drop out rate. It is insane to see those drop out rates. I cant believe them. Nearly 30% is insane considering its a free education. How is it better than the southern part of India – even if it has – lets say 50% drop out? and most parents in India now a days send a kid to a private school(admittedly somewhat better than public school system) even with their meager incomes.

    Those are main reasons I think/feel that resulted in a vacuum of high skilled workers in the economy in which K-12 plays part(these are the same reasons at college level too – except that the expense part plays additional role there). Its not teachers or money spent by govt or anything else(as politicians chest thump) as far as I think. Or are teachers responsible for drop-outs?

    Do I want my kid to study in US public school system? Absolutely. Do I think its sufficient? Absolutely not.

    All your “half-formed” thoughts are mostly accurate :). You defended schools, I am supportive of your argument – but I only wanted to point out what I think are reasons for K-12 problems. Since you claimed to be a teacher, do you think I am wrong in my reasoning?