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10/1/2010
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Innovation Mandate: Valero Execs On Keys To U.S. Success

It all starts with quality education, and a culture that emphasizes hard work and technical prowess.

Counting On Education

Calling math and science the engine of innovation, Zesch worries that India, China, and other countries are catching up while the U.S. is falling back. "They have the fire in the belly, and we don't as much," he says.

Zesch says the K-12 educational system and U.S. parental attitudes must change. The school system, he says, is more interested in making students self-satisfied than self-motivated--the "you're all winners!" mind-set. "That's a constant, creeping de-motivator," he says, "both for the kids who work the hardest and win and for those who would otherwise get a wake-up call by losing."

That's a stark contrast to the way things are in India. "When I grew up, they would rank the students in every single grade and say who came first, who came second, who came third, and down the line in every category, from academics to sports," Nayyar says.

Zesch, a father of four with two children still in high school, sent his kids through the Keystone School, a small, private K-12. Calling education his passion, he has served as chairman of the school since 2005. Nayyar and her husband, now U.S. citizens, send their 8-year-old son to Keystone as well.

Academically rigorous and among the highest-scoring schools in the nation in terms of SAT scores, Keystone was founded in 1948 and took off in the 1950s in response to Sputnik and the space race. The two founders were concerned that the U.S. was falling behind other countries in math and science, so those subjects have long been an emphasis at Keystone. The school has sent more competitors to the Discovery Channel's annual "Future Scientist" competition than any other school in the U.S.

Zesch thinks U.S. public schools are catering to permissive parents, who are all-too-accepting of kids spending most of their free time playing games, watching TV, or participating in sports and other extracurricular activities rather than doing homework or reading. Nayyar remembers parents setting very specific career goals growing up. "Across India, every parent wanted their child to be a doctor or an engineer," she says. "Here, there's hardly any drive for the children to become doctors, engineers, or scientists."

Zesch thinks there's still time for the U.S. to turn things around, but it won't happen without engaged parents who drive their kids to excel. "We've lost the competition on the lower school, middle school, and high school levels, but I think we can win it back," he says. "It's the parents and the schools that will make the difference."

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