UW’s Ed Lazowska: ‘Washington is the ass end of the donkey in just about every aspect of education’

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University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska implores the Seattle Tech Meetup crowd to stand up for better education in Washington.

The incredible talent that the University of Washington pumps out every year was on display during Tuesday’s Seattle Tech Meetup, as five startups with UW ties gave five-minute pitches to the crowd at the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering.

But unfortunately for the state, the UW is one of the few bright spots amidst an otherwise struggling education system with regard to producing tech talent. While Washington ranks fourth in the nation for tech-related companies, the state comes in a disappointing 46th for participation in science and engineering graduate programs.

seattletechmeetup123.jpgAnd that’s exactly why Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the UW, stood at the podium as the final speaker on Tuesday and implored the crowd to start supporting education in Washington. 

“My ask is for you to become advocates for better education at every level in this state,” Lazowska said.

He asked the audience to raise their hands if they were from Washington — the vast majority of them grew up elsewhere and have moved here. It was a perfect example, Lazowska said, of how Washington is the No. 1 importer in the nation per capita of bachelors-educated individuals.

Yet while it’s great that people come here for the abundance of jobs, the state isn’t exactly doing a good job of grooming homegrown talent.

“Our state is the ass end of the donkey in just about every aspect of education and in just about every aspect of preparing Washington’s kids for Washington’s jobs,” Lazowska said.

He has stats and facts to back that up: One-third of the kids in Washington who are eligible for Head Start or other Pre-K programs are denied access because the state doesn’t provide adequate funding. Among tech states, Washington has the highest dropout rate from 9th-grade to college. And depending on what you count, Lazowska said, the state ranks somewhere between 35th and 49th in the country in bachelors education participation rate per capita.

“It’s a serious problem and policymakers will do what will get them re-elected,” Lazowska said of the education dilemma. “Our job as citizens is to let them know that we want Washington kids to be getting Washington jobs.”

Washington has pipeline issues from secondary to postsecondary education.

Washington has pipeline issues from secondary to postsecondary education.

One promising step the state took recently was allowing Washington high schoolers to count computer science classes as a math or science requirement toward high school graduation, becoming the tenth state to do so.

In terms of the startup community, education is key when it comes to building out the ecosystem here and cultivating future entrepreneurs that work in the region after graduation. While the UW’s premier computer science school produces lots of high-quality graduates right in Seattle, the acceptance rate is low and hundreds of would-be programmers are turned away every year. The problem is that there aren’t many other places around the city to earn a degree in STEM-related fields.

startupseattleThat’s why education is a focus of Mayor Mike McGinn’s new startup initiative. Many here support the idea of a tech-focused private university to offer budding local engineers more opportunities to be educated. As part of his effort to transform New York into a “mid-Atlantic Silicon Valley,” NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg put huge resources behind Cornell, NYU, and Columbia to expand engineering programs in the city and so far, it’s certainly helping the startup scene there.

But Seattle does not have several established universities in the area like NYC and perhaps one thing that could really help the city is multiple second-tier schools. While Seattle has a premier institution in the UW, there’s not much else here churning out talented graduates. McGinn did cite Northeastern University’s move to Seattle as one example of a school realizing a market niche not being filled.

“That’s a real benefit to Boston and New York City,” McGinn said of multiple higher-ed institutions. “It’s something we’d love here, but that takes time.”

But Lazowska’s message on Tuesday was focused not so much on the lack of universities in the region, but rather on how students here are educated before arriving at college.

“My message to the audience was this: Before long, these will be your kids we’re talking about,” he said. “What are you going to do to improve the situation?”

Previously on GeekWire: UW partners with non-profit edX to offer free online courses 

  • missdk

    Two words: income tax. Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the country. We cannot fund education by continuing to raise taxes on middle and lower class goods and services.

  • Steve

    This also could be a reflection of the limited options for higher education in the state as well, i would like to see an analysis of higher ed options for local students (university and 4 year college) and how limited the options are for state schools and then the admission policies

  • Thomas R.

    Any coverage of the 4 or 5 startups that pitched during the presentation? On the STmeetup site it only lists 4 startups btw…

  • Guest 2

    There isn’t a funding problem. I have a child in public school and another in private. Next year they will both be in private school. While both of my kids had a good education through elementary school in public schools, middle school is when things start to fall apart.

    The biggest issue is the public school insistence on mainstreaming every kid. This means every special needs kid, every kid who needs lots of extra discipline, etc. get shoved into the regular classrooms. The teachers have no say in this and worse, they have no ability to discipline or remove the disruptive kid from the class.

    This causes the teacher to spend a huge portion of their time with a very small number of the students. Worse, because many of these kids are very poor students, the teacher ends up teaching down to them and the rest of the students education is compromised as a result.

    I’m not sure what the answer is but let’s stop saying it is funding. It isn’t.

  • Guest 3

    The last line says: “What are you going to do to improve the situation?”
    What should we do to improve the situation? I see some of the problems occurring and our schools/districts are telling kids entering 9th grade (even the high achievers) – don’t take the accelerated, AP and advanced courses. You may fail, you may hurt your GPA. Another example, with a 2 year integrated science program as the only option spanning 9-10th gr, that leaves 11th grade for chemistry and 12th grade for physics. Where is there room for AP science? How can kids take accelerated courses if they are all placed into the same science course in 9th grade. There’s no room left. It seems like we need to push some of these courses down earlier to make room for the advanced courses in high school, otherwise kids run out of room/time in their schedules. Some school districts have a tight hold on this and won’t allow this advancement. How to fix that?

  • Guest

    Most of us on GeekWire are Engineers, Scientists, Programmers etc…

    When things break down, we start applying our problem-solving skills!

    We get trapped in “analysis paralysis” a.k.a. TBU (True But Useless).

    We could spend 20 years writing position papers on the Washington State education problem.

    Consider this, your child comes home one day with her report card. She got one A, four B’s, and one F.

    Nearly all parents will be fixated on the F.

    Where will you spend your time as a parent?

    Something seems broken—we should fix it. Let’s get a tutor. Or maybe she should be punished—she’s grounded until that grade recovers.

    Why not…

    Honey, you made an “A” in this one class. You must really have a strength in this subject.

    How can we build on that???

    What’s working, and how can we do more of it?

    Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

    Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions.

    Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.

    In times of change, we need a solution focus, not a problem focus.

    Even in failure there is success.

  • Mike

    UW is part of the problem. Why don’t they expand their CS department? Because a larger class, by definition, decreases the average scores of incoming freshman, thus lowering UW’s national rank. However, increasing the size, would produce more useful great CS grads.
    It’s not funding, it’s optics.