High standards bring out the best in all of us, challenging us to dig deep within ourselves to accomplish things we originally thought impossible.
Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, who grew up as the son of a meat cutter on the rough side of Brooklyn, N.Y., credits his education in Jesuit-run schools for instilling in him the high standards of excellence that he would later use to mold his players into champions.
Toni Morrison, who in 1993 became the first African American and the eighth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, says she probably never would have become a writer had not her mother exposed her to the best literature as a child.
Although important throughout life, high standards are especially crucial in the formative years to help shape our work ethic, morals and sense of responsibility, academic performance, confidence and persistence against adversity -- all ingredients for success in life.
But, how successful are we today in setting high, obtainable standards of excellence for our children, especially in academics, to prepare them to survive and thrive in the highly technological and competitive world they will inherit?
Perhaps this personal account by President Obama (taken from a speech he made at the U.S. Department of Education two years ago) may provide insight. Said the President:
I'll never forget a school I visited one day when I was a community organizer in Chicago. As I walked around the school with the principal, I remember saying to her how wonderful it was to see all these kids so full of energy and hope ... And when I asked them what they were going to be when they grew up, they said, we're going to be doctors and lawyers, and they all had these big dreams for the future. And I remember the principal saying that soon all that would change; that in a year or two, something would shut off inside as they began to realize their hopes wouldn't come to pass -- not because they weren't smart enough, not because they weren't talented enough, but because they didn't see a pathway to success.
And that's true of too many children in this country... Maybe they aren't being challenged at school. Maybe their parents aren't pushing them the way they need to. Maybe nobody is setting high expectations for them.
Research abounds with evidence that high standards and expectations exert powerful influences upon students. For example, classic studies in psychology report that merely stating an expectation clearly and repeating it periodically results in enhanced performance. Other research in education reveals higher expectations result in higher performance, and persons with high expectations perform at a higher level than those with low expectations even though their measured abilities are equal, and despite socio-economic differences between learners.
Math, science and engineering -- the engine of technological innovation in the 21century -- especially stand to gain from high academic standards. America, a country that has always led in innovation, is now being outpaced in math and science education by other nations. This achievement gap not only jeopardizes our global competitive edge in technology but also, according to a White House estimate, stands in coming years to cost us hundreds of billions of dollars in wages that will not be earned, jobs that will not be done, and purchases that will not be made.
Bluntly stated, we need to inspire more young people to pursue the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and to prepare children for the high standards these professions demand. This means encouraging them in their pre-college years to take (and do well in) such challenging courses as geometry, algebra, calculus, physics, chemistry, biology, environmental science. Subjects that most kids like to avoid.
It's been my experience as creator and organizer of the USA Science & Engineering Festival (www.usasciencefestival.com ) -- the nation's first annual event to attract and inspire the next generation of innovators -- that kids' interest and motivation in math and science skyrockets when such learning includes exciting interaction with scientists, engineers and biotech entrepreneurs, and the chance to participate in meaningful hands-on presentations in these fields in and outside the classroom. These are the types of experiences the Festival provides, which in turn give students the opportunity to see how science, engineering and math are applied to real-life situations, and to witness up-close what these careers offer.
During the two-week Festival (which last year received accolades and acknowledgment from the U.S. Congress and President Obama), students, with their teachers and parents, also learn first-hand of the high standards these technological professions demand, and the high level of preparation needed on students' part to succeed in such fields -- skills such as critical and analytical thinking, creative problem solving and how to work effectively in groups. Thus, the Festival helps kids make an important mental connection about what high academic expectations really mean -- and how to achieve them in challenging subjects they once were afraid or reluctant to tackle.
It's clear that our schools and teachers cannot do this task alone. And while it is imperative that parents do their part as well, there is also an important role for businesses, universities and other community partners -- which is why the Festival brings all of these entities together to help inspire students. The Festival's inaugural event last year, which culminated in a massive Expo celebration at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., attracted more than half million participants and visitors. This included not only a wide array of world-class science and engineering speakers and presenters representing fields ranging from astrophysics and aeronautical engineering to biology, chemistry and nanotechnology -- but also esteemed Nobel Laureates and more than 750 leading organizations and businesses in technology which served as sponsors and Expo exhibitors.
The Festival's next event in 2012 will expand to encompass international science and engineering innovation, so we look to have even more of an impact.
Our challenge is apparent: In our highly competitive and technological world, where knowledge is the most valuable commodity we can offer our children, the future belongs to the nation which not only educates, but sets high standards for its children.