PALO ALTO, Calif. – The K-12 education system in America is broken, and the brightest young minds in the country are choosing careers in Wall Street rather than engineering.
That was the view of Ursula Burns, chairman and chief executive of Xerox. She also cited clouds on the short- and long-term business horizon in a talk at the Churchill Club here.
The K-12 system in the U.S. is "absolutely broken [and] woefully inadequate," said Burns, named in November 2009 by President Obama to head a White House program on science, technology engineering and math education.
"It's not the schools, the teachers or the books, it’s the system," said Burns. "It's the level of entitlement, the fact we have a system that has this belief that everyone independent of performance should feel good about something--we can't have a system where people can't fail," she said.
"We have expectations that OK is good enough, but I'm the product of a parent who says performance matters," she said.
Burns is indeed an example of a successful performer. She joined Xerox in 1980 as an intern after graduating MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering. She rose up the ranks at the company to become in July 2009 the first black female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.
"You have to have high expectations, and put time and energy into having a good outcome [in education]," said Burns. As a society "we have to celebrate [Segway inventor] Dean Kamen or the Nobel prize winner in physics, and not just [sports heroes such as] Lebron James," she said.
The Xerox CEO also cautioned against tightening immigration policies.
"America still is a country of immigrants," she said. "We let people in who have less and they aspire to have more, and the cycle of less-to-more makes us what we are, so we [shouldn't be] trying to choke off some of the immigrants," she added.
At the other end of the spectrum, Burns talked about an encounter with MIT engineering students most of whom said they planned to join Wall Street firms, attracted by starting salaries as high as $170,000 a year.
"There's nothing wrong with money, but these people go into labs and do derivative trading and guess what that creates—nothing," she said.
"I tell students to find something you love to do and go do it," Burns said. "I still have some hope that these [MIT] engineers will get back to engineering," she added.