Editor’s note: When Intel Chairman Craig Barrett addressed the Education Writer’s Association annual conference in New Orleans on June 2, he spoke of an era of hope and opportunity–an opportunity not just to rebuild the thousands of homes and buildings destroyed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but one to improve the current state of education in the region and, eventually, throughout the nation. His message: Computers are important tools for learning, but teachers are the real difference-makers in students’ lives. What follows is a copy of Dr. Barrett’s prepared remarks as approved by Intel Corp.

Teaching the 21st-century workforce

Thank you. I’m happy to be here today, and I think it’s appropriate to be meeting in New Orleans this year. The wipeout of the education system here was another disaster that befell the city after Katrina hit last year. But this aftermath of the storm is also an opportunity–an opportunity to rebuild an education system better than what you had before and better than what currently exists in most of the rest of the country.

Which brings us to the reason we’re here today: U.S. economic leadership is at risk. Half of the world’s population has entered the global marketplace. They are the hungry half–hungry for opportunity, education, and experience. These new market participants are not just consumers, they are also our competitors. They are skilled, aggressive, and their nations are pouring resources into science and technology.

At Intel, we invest in the best minds wherever they may be; traditionally, that has been the United States. As a business person, I need to decide where to invest–for my company’s and my stockholders’ success. And while we continue to invest here, we can’t deny a global trend, one that is driven by highly skilled workers and growth market overseas.

Consider an imaginary country: 30 percent of its citizens don’t finish high school. Of those who do, they rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in their understanding of math and science. Even though it has the best university system in the world, this country educates more foreign than domestic engineers.

The government of this nation spends more on R&D than any other country, but most of that expenditure is on military systems. Private corporations based here spend more on legal costs than on R&D. The country spends nearly twice per capita of any other country on health care, yet gets increasingly worse results from its health-care system.

Approximately 30 percent of the K-12 math and science teachers don’t have a degree in either subject. And, finally, the country agonizes over an illegal immigration problem while sending home or denying access to well-educated potential immigrants.

Does any of this sound familiar? I probably won’t have to ask you twice. This, unfortunately, is the United States.

The blunt truth is: The new global economy is technology-based. Everybody else is educating scientists. And if we don’t start doing the same, we’ll lose our lock on the innovations and markets of the future.

Unfortunately, the U.S. education system is broken. We’ve heard the statistics before: U.S. students rank 19th in math and 18th in science among developed countries; U.S. 12th grade students rank below the international average of 21 countries in general knowledge of math and science; 11 out of 15 countries recently outperformed U.S. students in an advanced math assessment; 30 percent of students in the U.S. do not even graduate high school.

Without trained people, we can’t do sophisticated work, and we will become a second-class economy.

Needed for American education: Product overhaul

I ask you: What system would tolerate this rate of failure? No product with these types of failure rates would make it to market.

Given the realities of the current world economy, we cannot compete without workers who are educated in math and science–period. We have been tinkering with this deficit around the edges, and it’s not adequate.

We won’t fix American math and science education without overhauling American education in general. We need a product overhaul. That will take fundamental reform of three core components: the way we teach, the way we test, and the structure of our schools.

The way we teach

We need to train better teachers. The problem isn’t the people themselves; it’s how we prepare them for the job. Today, teachers are overwhelmingly trained at education schools that emphasize the wrong things, such as learning theory over both practical skill and content knowledge. Also, teaching math and science is challenging, and we need education schools that prepare [education] students to meet this challenge in real classrooms, with real classroom experience.

Content knowledge is also important, but 22 percent of secondary-school students take at least one class with a teacher who doesn’t even have a college minor in the subject. In math or science, this is a disaster.

We need to hire better teachers. We should look beyond [education] schools for experienced, passionate math and science teachers. Right now that’s not possible, because the certification requirements are too rigid. For instance, Colin Powell couldn’t be hired by a public high school today without going through a complicated certification process. Neither could I.

A 2003 poll by Public Agenda found that only 11 percent of principals and 5 percent of superintendents believe full certification means that teachers are qualified.

Teacher certification in most states means completing a specified number of education courses and passing an exam. Exams are easy, cutoffs are low, and many pass rates approach 100 percent. This certification isn’t meaningful. We need alternative certification that puts prepared professionals in our classrooms.

We need to more adequately reward successful teachers. Teachers work hard, and the vast majority of them are enthusiastic, committed, and love to teach. But after we hire good teachers, we have to pay them or we won’t keep them. Pay does not reflect demand, so math and science teachers can’t earn more. Pay does not reflect earning power elsewhere, so math and science teachers aren’t compensated for bypassing lucrative technical careers. Pay does not reflect conditions, so teachers aren’t rewarded for serving in challenging schools. Pay does not reflect merit. Most principals can’t offer bonuses and raises.

Right now, 14 percent of teachers leave the classroom in the first year and nearly half leave by the fifth year; those who leave are among the best. When good teachers earn the same as bad teachers, good teachers won’t stay–and bad teachers won’t leave.

The way we test

Accountability means testing with teeth. Reforming the way we train, hire, and reward teachers is crucial–but it’s not enough. We also need to hold schools accountable for their performance. Schools are like other institutions or organizations: None succeed without accountability–and for schools, accountability means testing.

Teachers must prepare all students to be regularly and rigorously tested in math and science fundamentals. The best tests pull no punches and have teeth. Science testing under NCLB should be tough and should be counted towards a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress.

And being accountable shouldn’t mean holding back diplomas. We should not necessarily be penalizing students for the faults of the system. Our failures are being directly visited upon the kids in our schools, often through no fault of their own. It is a moral imperative that the system changes.

There is another important point: Consumers need choice. In business, consumer choice and competition ensure experimentation, effort, and results. Schools are no different. Monopolies fail those they serve, and a monopolistic school system will fail our students and our country.

Anyone who can create a school that works should be free to do so, period. That means religious denominations but also the 4H Club, the New Orleans Saints, and even Intel. Vouchers are moving slowly, though I note with interest that in its second year Washington, D.C.’s voucher program serves 1,700 students at 58 schools.

Charter schools offer significant competition right now and need support and expansion. For instance, one year ago, 1 million children in 40 states were in charter schools. Today, that includes 28 percent of Dayton, Ohio, 25 percent of Washington, D.C., 12 percent of Houston–and I could go on.

21st-century learning

So, we have ideas for changes, for improvements. And we have to ask ourselves: Where will this get us? My hope as a business leader is that these reforms will get us to the 21st-century school–a 21st-century learning environment that offers a content-rich curriculum. “Inquiry-based learning” has value, but process should not replace content. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in math and science are content-heavy, but many elite private schools are dropping them to teach “conceptual understandings” that are “consistent with findings from recent research on how people learn.”

Students cannot “discover” all knowledge; much must be taught, and some by rote (think of atomic structure, plate tectonics, and genetics, for instance). Lab and field work are important–but so are memorizing facts, definitions, algorithms.

Conclusion: Start acting

Education is a human and civil right. To say we don’t have the money, to say it costs too much, it’ll take too long, it’s too hard–these are excuses, and it’s outrageous for us to keep making excuses.

We all have a role to play; business, as much as everyone else, has a stake and has to be a part of the solution. Most importantly, we need to collectively speak out and convince our politicians, parents, and country that we have a problem–that they need to move beyond studies, commissions, and hearings to action.

It’s time to start training the 21st-century workforce. It’s time to ensure U.S. technological and economic leadership for centuries to come.