Dear Mr. President,
You may recall that we met at the White House during your reception for U.S Nobel Laureates. My award was in Physics (1988) and we had a brief discussion of neutrinos and our ever more incisive story of the creation and evolution of the Universe and how the deep connections of the outer space of cosmology and the inner space of particle physics are joined to illuminate the history and structure of the physical universe.
I was impressed by the questions you asked, with a line of Laureates waiting to meet you. When you remarked that the nation owes me (i.e. its scientists) a great debt, I could not refrain from asking, "Sir, could you possibly estimate approximately how much that would be?" the crowd broke up and I missed my chance. Now I would like to bring up a new topic which I believe is as crucial to the future of the nation as any that my illustrious colleagues have raised. This is the education of our children and especially the prep to 12 schooling they are receiving. I have spent the best part of the past decade in a growing fascination with the problem and with growing despair.
I know you are aware of the problem and your "Leave no child behind" rhetoric and legislation are bold steps to face the issue. But I am afraid the problem is much more desperate than one imagines. My vantage point as a scientist enables me to realize that out scientific and technological successes are now at risk. Alan Greenspan has testified before the Goodling Congressional Committee hearings that we have maintained a robust science by means of fortuitous immigration which is slowing down as nations begin to realize how crucial their scientific and technological manpower are to their own development. And our industries plead for more visas to supply the human resources that our own schools are failing to do. Our founding fathers, in their almost infinite wisdom, left education to states and localities, failing perhaps to anticipate the national peril that would arise if our (now) 16,000 separate school systems failed to educate the populations we need, not only the future scientists and engineers but also the voting citizens with a sense of science that a democratic society must have in order to support difficult decisions that 21st century society must make.
I suggest that the President convene a very powerful National Commission on Education. It would consist of University Presidents, CEO's of major technology industries, High ranking officers in the military, scientists and educators. The Chair must be a person of immense public recognition and respect, e.g. Colin Powell, should he retire from your Government The charge would be to create an action plan for a far reaching national consensus program to bring the U.S. into the 21st century educationally. Whereas this would clearly not be a Federally mandated program, the influential composition of the Commission must have a profound effect on the States and localities.
We have a large number of successful schools and skilled teachers. We have very strong elements of new curricula. The revolution we need is to add the new elements of cognition science, to collect the new information from the neurosciences that are useful in the classroom, to create a new ethic of teacher education and continuous professional development. Salaries for teachers and a creative effort at raising the social status of teachers must be blended to make teaching a primary objective of the best students.
It is not difficult to imagine that the Commission will suggest a program of matching Federal and State resources to pay for the increments that this program will require. There is probably a ten year program of implementation before the payoffs begin to appear. Special programs will be needed for the inner cities but solid experience in Chicago and other cities indicate that, given the resources, these can achieve spectacular success.
There are many holes in this proposal but that is why we need this high level Commission. The Bush Education Commission will create a heritage that few Presidents can claim, rivalling the creation of free public education, the G.I. Bill , Social Security etc.
Generations of Americans will remember and honor you for finally addressing the issue of our failed school system and of matching resources with rhetoric to create a new age of education, a new meaning of superpower.
With best wishes for the remainder of your term,
Leon M. Lederman
Director Emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
Nobel Laureate in Physics (1988)
Coauthor (with David Schramm) of From Quarks to the Cosmos : Tools of Discovery, and (with Dick Teresi) of The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?