from The Water's Edge

Guest Post: Anya Schmemann on the U.S. Education Reform and National Security Report

March 20, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I had the great pleasure to spend the past two days at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  (Oskee Wow Wow!) To walk the Illinois campus is to see American education at its best. Whether it’s the work being done at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology on electronic nanostructures, or the high-end software being developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, or the efforts by the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Program to turn biomass into fuel, to name just a few outstanding research initiatives underway at Illinois, it’s easy to see how education improves our lives, creates jobs, and keeps the United States competitive.

Unfortunately, as a new CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force report released today points out, America’s overall educational system is lagging in its ability to produce students who can take advantage of the opportunities that exist at Illinois and America’s other excellent colleges. This “educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk," according to the Task Force, which was chaired by Joel I. Klein, former head of New York City public schools, and Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state. The country "will not be able to keep pace—much less lead—globally unless it moves to fix the problems it has allowed to fester for too long."

My colleague Anya Schmemann directs CFR’s Task Force Program. I asked to her explain the Task Force’s reasoning and conclusions. Here’s what she had to say:

 The Task Force report notes that many students graduating from American public schools today are not prepared to succeed:

—    They are not ready academically. Almost a third of college freshmen require remedial education. ACT, Inc. found that only 24 percent of high school graduates (and just four percent of African-American graduates) who took the ACT in 2010 were ready for college-level classes.

—    They are not ready for work. A recent survey of American employers rated 81 percent of high school graduates “deficient” in written communications, and many employers are already complaining that despite sustained unemployment, they are not able to find qualified young Americans to hire.

—    They are not ready for military service. In a recent report, a coalition of retired generals noted that 75 percent of American young people could not join the military because they were either physically unfit, had criminal records, or had failed to graduate from high school. Even students who did graduate from high school are not all academically fit to serve.

Many students are completing high school unprepared; many others do not even make it to graduation. Today, too many U.S. students drop out of school every year. A report released Monday noted that the national graduation rate is now 75.5 percent (with lower rates for Hispanic and African-American students). Those without high school degrees are increasingly likely to be unemployed and earn less than high school and college graduates.

U.S. students are increasingly falling behind their international peers. The 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—a report published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—found that the United States scored just “average” in reading and science and “below average” in math.

Test scores are only part of the story, of course. U.S. schools must also prepare students with the critical thinking, language, creative, and technical skills necessary to help the United States maintain a political, diplomatic, and military advantage in addition to economic and innovative prowess.

Despite rising levels of investment in education in recent decades, results have shown scarce improvement, and achievement gaps have been persistent.

The Obama administration has tried to spur competition through the “Race to the Top” competition. “Our future is on the line,” President Obama has said. “The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow. To continue to cede our leadership in education is to cede our position in the world.”

There are also significant reform efforts at the state and local levels. Notably, more than forty states have adopted common core state standards in math and reading. Local school districts across the United States have implemented innovative strategies focused on choice, accountability, and human capital. And more school systems are focusing on recruiting, training, and rewarding good teachers and effective administrators.

There are positive developments and cause for optimism, but more people need to acknowledge the problems and press for change. The nation also must take bolder actions to improve education for all children in the United States.

A failure to educate will affect all Americans; it is time for all of us to play a role in demanding change and implementing solutions.

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