But Haley takes issue with the study's broader conclusion that the U.S. isn't falling behind in math and science education. Other recent studies show that the very top percentage of U.S. students is beginning to drop in comparison to students from other countries, he said.
"The problem arises with the comparison of our top-performing students to those in other countries," Haley said.
There's another element to consider in the education debate: the nature of U.S. society. "The U.S. stands alone in having more challenges to its educational system than any of the advanced industrial countries," Salzman said.
For one thing, there's a stronger relationship between a school's economic situation and its success, or what some have called the "zip code determines education quality" phenomenon. Other countries do a better job of compensating within a school system for students' disadvantages, according to Salzman.
"This is what tends to get lost" in the debate, he said.
The report also questions whether there is indeed a shortage of U.S. engineering graduates. "The standard labor market indicators do not indicate a shortage," Salzman asserted, adding that a shortage would result in lower unemployment for engineers and rapidly increasing wages, similar to what occurred during the dot-com era, he said.
The U.S. science and engineering workforce currently stands at 4.8 million, according to the study.
From 1993 to 2002, U.S. colleges awarded some 380,000 science and engineering bachelor's degrees, over 70,000 master's degrees and, on average, nearly 20,000 engineering doctorates.
"Rather than a supply problem, we probably have a demand problem," Salzman said Tuesday (Nov. 6).
The math and science backgrounds of foreign and U.S. students appear similar, at least at one top U.S. engineering school. While acknowledging that his students may not represent a true cross section of a typical U.S. high school, Joe Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, said he sees surprising uniformity.
"When I look at incoming graduate students at Dartmouth and I compare the ones who are U.S.-educated and those [educated overseas], I don't see huge differences," he said.
What Helble sees "are differences in creativity. I would say that the U.S. students are among the most creative and innovative."
Although some Asian students may have better raw quantitative skills, that doesn't necessarily make them better engineers or scientists, Helble said. "You have to look at their ability to tackle a problem without a clear solution."
Some Dartmouth engineering grads end up in other fields, including financial services and investment jobs where they are valued for their ability to think quantitatively and analyze technologies, the Dartmouth dean noted.