The Internal “Brain Drain” Reexamined
By William Durden, Ph.D.
For a strong future, Wisconsin must develop fully the educational potential of its youth and retain or attract the most talented as future state leaders.
A 1988 report, Wisconsin’s Internal Brain Drain: The State’s Most Valuable–and Undeveloped–Resource. sponsored by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, stated that these goals were not being met. 1989 finds that the indictment holds and that new information suggests a shrinking of Wisconsin’s historic educational advantage in comparison to other states. In several important areas of achievement, college-bound Wisconsin students continue to rank well behind their peers in other states, and, where a distinctive lead is claimed, that advantage is misleading or gradually shrinking. Among the most gifted Wisconsin students, significant numbers leave for higher education elsewhere, unfortunately without an apparent sustained and sufficient effort of Wisconsin public institutions to compete for them.
Educators, parents, and elected state officials confront four challenges. First, they must discard the unwarranted complacency and self-satisfaction which exists in many quarters as to the effectiveness of the state’s schools. Second, they must address what amounts to an internal brain drain and shrinking advantage, with too few of the state’s college-bound children reaching full potential. Third, they must financially support efforts such as those proposed by the state’s Department of Public Instruction in 1988/89 to institute rigorous and systematic gifted and talented initiatives, which to date the State Legislature has been unwilling to adequately back. Fourth, they must determine if, as some perceive, Wisconsin is also witnessing an external brain drain with a disproportionate share of the most talented high school seniors leaving the state, and, if this is the case, offer incentives to keep the students or attract outstanding students from other states.
An overview of current Wisconsin attitudes and practices reveals misguided assumptions, ignorance and general inaction in the face of these challenges. This was the same description rendered in 1988, although since the issuance of Wisconsin’s Internal Brain Drain a number of highly laudable proposals have been drafted to deal with some of the stated deficiencies. Unfortunately, these efforts are frustrated by key segments of the state leadership denying sufficient financial resources to advance substantial improvements. This condition stands in sharp contrast to the neighboring states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois, as well as numerous others where the educational system is seen as the focus of fundamental reform for meeting future social and economic challenges. An investment in education now is seen in these states as a savings later.
One explanation for Wisconsin’s circumstance in 1988 was complacency, and it remains so in 1989. This judgment is based on indicators of educational achievement, which might lead one to conclude that Wisconsin students are superior to those from most other states, since for at least the last decade Wisconsin’s scores have been well above the national average. These supposed indicators of high achievement are test results from The College Board Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test program (ACT).
A more thorough assessment reveals a conflicting conclusion to that offered by SAT and ACT test scores and even reveals Wisconsin’s nationally standardized precollegiate examinations losing ground and approaching the national average. These examinations include the SAT, ACT and PSAT.
Further, in the context of efforts which characterize other state’s activities, Wisconsin does not fare well either in the general level of academic preparedness nor in its efforts to match
its brightest youth with rigorous opportunities to foster emerging talent at an early age. These opportunities include: College Board Advanced Placement programs, gifted and talented initiatives, academic competitions, Talent Searches and other special education initiatives.