Thursday, February 01, 2007

Who needs fact checkers ? We're writing about education


The cover of the July 25, 2005 issue of Fortune featured a takeoff on the old Charles
Atlas body-building ads from the comic books of my youth. On the beach, a brawny
China (in a bathing suit made from the Chinese flag) bullies a scrawny Uncle Sam. The
text on the cover asks “America: the 97-pound weakling?”

In The Fifteenth Bracey report, I made note of the cover and one of the statements from
reporter Geoffrey Colvin: “Our primary and secondary schools are falling behind the rest
of the world’s.” About this statistic I commented, “No evidence was offered, no doubt
because none exists.” Well, that’s true, but it turned out that I had overlooked the
statement and the statistics that would cause so much mischief.

Those came in a section where Colvin wrote about the increasingly well-educated globe
saying, “In engineering, China’s graduates will number over 600,000, India’s 350,000
and America’s only about 70,000.” Colvin’s timing was impeccable—his article arrived
just as a group of fear mongers at the National Academies were putting the final touches
on Rising Above the Gathering Storm, pretty much an echo of the Colvin article that
included his figures for engineers. “The Gathering Storm” carried a particularly ominous
tone--Winston Churchill had used that phrase as the title of his book on the coming of
World War II.

Colvin’s numbers had already caused Carl Bialik’s broad eyebrows to arch. Bialik’s
Wall Street Journal column, “The Numbers Guy” tracks down various statistics,
repudiating some, elevating others. Unlike most things at the uber-capitalist WSJ,
Bialik’s worthwhile column is free,

Bialik could not locate the original source, but he did find a number of skeptics and wrote
about their doubts in an August column. Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of
Technology pointed out that CEO’s have nothing to lose by crying wolf: “There’s only
an upside for them. It deflects attention from the fact that they’re offshoring more work.
And there’s no cost to them—the government is going to foot the bill [by subsidizing
engineering schools]. The increase in supply of engineers is going to keep wages down.”

When Rising Above the Gathering Storm appeared in early October, Bialik returned to
the stats. “Now that the National Academies has lent its imprimatur to the numbers,
they’re likely to be circulated more widely in an industry effort to boost government
investment in engineering education that might not be in the best interest of American
technical workers.” Good guess.

The National Academies are formed by the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of
Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
Richard Freeman at Harvard told Bialik that his studies showed that many of the Chinese
“engineers” would come out of two- and three-year programs and that the number of real
engineers graduating from Chinese universities would be more like 350,000.

When Bialik approached Deborah Stine, who had led the National Academies team, she
told him “we assumed Fortune did fact-checking on their numbers” (!!). She also said,
“We appreciate your bringing it up.” She pointed Bialik towards a study from the
McKinsey Global Institute which had used a figure of 550,000. As Bialik noted, though,
the McKinsey study focused on how nine out of ten Chinese “engineers” would lack the
skills to qualify for employment at a multinational corporation.

The matter appeared to have been put to rest with the publication of an in-depth study by
Gary Gereffi, Vivek Wadhwa and a team of researchers at Duke University. They
confirmed Freeman’s numbers coming up with 351,537 for China, 112,000 for India and
137,437 for the U. S. A lot of what China and India called engineers, America would call

The matter was not put to rest. The Duke report appeared in December. Calling the
original numbers “mangoes to litchis” comparisons, Wadhwa gave his figures some
visibility in a December column in Business Week Online. In April, 2006, I dedicated
part of a Kappan Research column to debunking the original numbers and in May I
published “Heard the One About the 600,000 Chinese Engineers?” in the Sunday
Outlook section of the Washington Post.

The Washington Post piece popped up on hundreds of Web sites in North America, Asia
and Europe. Not that that did much good. The National Academies imprimatur stuck.
Not only did it stick outside of the National Academies, it stuck inside as well. Asked by
Christian Science Monitor reporter, Mark Clayton, what the new figures meant, Stine
replied “I don’t think we believe that all these new numbers change the ultimate
recommendations we have. The U. S. is well behind other countries.” Jeez, why bother
with numbers at all?

In the meantime the larger figures prevailed in speeches by Secretary of Education
Spellings, Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, Senator John Warner, Rochester
Institute of Technology President, Alan Simone, and, in a variation on the theme, Bill
Gates. They turned up in columns by journalists Hedrick Smith and Fareed Zakariya.

Some few people did speak of the “engineering gap” in the same skeptical voice we now
use to refer to the earlier “missile gap,” but I imagine the vision of hordes of Chinese
engineers will live on statistically for many years. Indeed, the experience allowed me to
formulate Bracey’s Law of Statistical Longevity: Any statistic, no matter how bogus,
that appears to reflect badly on the education system and raises fears about the future is
guaranteed a long life.

Bialik, Carl. (2006, 26 August). “Outsourcing fears help inflate some numbers.”

Bialik, Carl. (2006, 27 October). “Sounding the alarm with a fuzzy stat.”

Bracey, Gerald. (2006, 21 May). “Heard the one about the 600,000 Chinese engineers?”
Washington Post, p. C3.

Clayton, Mark. (2005, 20 December). “Does the US face an engineering gap?”
Christian Science Monitor,

Colvin, Geoffrey. (2005, 25 July). “America isn’t ready: here’s what to do about it.”
Fortune, pp. 70-82.

Farrell, Diana and Andrew J. Grant. (2005). “China’s looming talent shortage.”
McKinsey Quarterly,

Gereffi, Gary and Vivek Wadhwa. (2005, December). Framing the engineering
outsourcing debate: Placing the United States on a level playing field with China and
India. Durham, NC: Duke University.

Wadhwa, Vivek. (2005, 13 December). “About that engineering gap...”

Read the entire Rotten Apples in Education Awards, 2006. By researcher Gerald W. Bracey. Here
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