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Colorado Springs university leaders discuss U.S. education efforts
Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, second from left, discusses the state of higher education in the United States during a panel at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec. 8, 2011. The Colorado Springs World Affairs Council organized the panel, which also included (from left): Dr. Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs; World Affairs Council President Schuyler Foerster, Colorado College President Dr. Jill Tiefenthaler and Dr. Bruce Harmon, dean of engineering at the southern campus of Colorado Technical University. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)
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Academy superintendent joins local education leaders for panel discussion

Posted 12/12/2011   Updated 12/12/2011 Email story   Print story


by David Edwards
Academy Spirit staff writer

12/12/2011 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Colorado Springs World Affairs Council shined a spotlight on education in the United States at a panel discussion Thursday, and the Air Force Academy was well represented.

Leading the way as the moderator was Dr. Sky Foerster, the new president of the Springs' World Affairs Council and also the Brent Scowcroft professor of national security studies at the Academy.

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould and his civilian counterparts at the city's three other major universities formed a presidential panel to address education and global competition in the present and future.

To segue into the discussion, Foerster read an excerpt from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: "It is more vital than ever that we have schools elevating and inspiring more of our young people to become better and best, because good won't cut it anymore and average is definitely over.

"So that's the competitive edge that we want to try and get a little bit at tonight," Foerster added.

He cited a litany of grim indicators about the state of education in the United States and the detriments to global competitiveness that Americans are experiencing as a result. Gould agreed about the consequences but cautioned against reading too much into the statistics.

"If we cannot continue to compete as a nation and develop young men and women to go up and take our places, then we have failed them, and they'll fail us," Gould said. "I'm an optimist on this. ... What I think we see is that kids today are learning in a different way, at a different pace than we may have. And if anything, I think maybe our measurements are off a little bit."

Dr. Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, mentioned the shift in perception that has caused education to be viewed more as a private good than a public good.

As a result, the percentage of public funding for qualifying colleges and universities is decreasing, and that means individual students must shoulder more of the costs of earning a degree.

Shockley-Zalabak said that the United States' global competitiveness is diminished because of it, in part because key competitors India and China are taking the approach to education that America once did.

But she also shared a story that illustrates how motivated both traditional and nontraditional students are to find the means to earn a degree. And that, she said, gives her hope for the future.

Gould piggybacked on those comments by describing the admissions process at the Air Force Academy.

"We have to make sure we have a football team that can beat Army and Navy," he deadpanned before adding: "We try really hard to make our Academy look like the America that we lead. And so diversity is important to us, but standards are extremely high."

Jill Tiefenthaler, president of the host institution, Colorado College, elaborated on a popular theme at the panel discussion: STEM education, a reference to science, technology, engineering and math. STEM happens to be an area of emphasis at the Academy.

Tiefenthaler, an economist by trade, referred to a recent editorial she wrote in rebuttal to suggestions by Florida Gov. Rick Scott that state funding there should be directed exclusively toward STEM. She said that limiting higher education to those four fields of study would be shortsighted and counterproductive.

Tiefenthaler's technical-school colleague on the panel -- Bruce Harmon, dean of engineering at Colorado Technical University's local campus -- agreed.

The first question from the audience called attention to the "elephant in the room." The questioner was referring to the large number of American students who pay little heed to their elementary and secondary education and enter college totally unprepared.

"I couldn't agree more that the K-12 issues are really a precursor to some of the problems," Harmon said. "People are not as well prepared as they need to be (in order) to be successful in college, but beyond that to be successful in life in the field that they want to choose. I once sat next to a mathematics professor who would turn to me every now and then and say, 'I wish they had taught them math instead of feeling good about their bad math.'"

The audience member who asked the next question thanked his predecessor for "taking us to first base" and said he would like to "attempt to get us to second base." He raised the issue of children and teens who are deemed somehow incapable of being students.

Shockley-Zalabak nearly stole the show with her response as she recounted her first teaching job. Beginning at age 21, she spent three years giving GED instruction to inmates in federal prison.

"This is called baptism by fire," she said. "The fact that I'm still in education is a miracle."
Then she balanced the realist in her with the optimist that is found in every good educator.

"I absolutely acknowledge that there are a few students who probably are not going to be learners in any kind of environment," she said. But she added that society should devise and encourage more sophisticated teaching methods such as those being used with autistic children, and people should exercise caution so they don't give up on youngsters too soon.

"Those young men (in prison) were a tough group to reach," Shockley-Zalabak said. "But they taught me a valuable lesson."

And even with four top administrators at universities and a well-educated audience in the room, there were plenty of valuable lessons to go around.

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