A Global Test For U.S. Schools

Declining academic performance at K-12 levels poses a threat to U.S. competitiveness and national security. Greater school choice and support for core national standards should be central to reform, says Joel Klein, co-chair of a new CFR independent task force.

March 19, 2012

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Quality public education is seen as the cornerstone of a healthy democracy and essential for a globally competitive economy. But U.S. investments in K-12 education have generated much poorer results than global competitors, says Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and co-chair of a new CFR Task Force report on education reform and national security. The foreign policy implications are profound, Klein says. Among the critical shortcomings that Klein says need to be addressed are: an increasing lack of qualified American workers, a shrinking pool of citizens intellectually eligible for military service, and a dearth of graduates with foreign language proficiency.

The emphasis of the task force is on both future U.S. economic competitiveness and national security. Can you talk about these two focus areas?

We had a number of people on the task force who came from a military or global security focus. People like co-chairwoman Condoleezza Rice [and] Pete Geren, former secretary of the Army. They were looking at the educational challenges from an international security standpoint--for example, not having people adequately trained in foreign languages and other skills we’re going to need. And indeed, not being able to adequately staff our military services if we don’t educate kids to different levels. So that was the unique focus.

But there was a second focus that goes to long-term national security issues--even though it is more of an economic focus--and that is the widening gap between those Americans who increasingly do better economically, compared with the rest of the country. We are seeing a flattening of their economic well-being, or a hollowing out of a core middle class. What the task force found was that education provides the sort of glue that holds us together--the notion that through education you can change the course of one’s life. As Secretary Rice [says]: In America, it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.

The report documents how U.S. K-12 education has steadily slipped in comparison to international peers. What does this say?

One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable.

We live in a human capital time. The demands of the global economy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries--where the world is experiencing a dramatic technological transformation--are really about training, education, and preparation of our workforce. So what you see going on throughout the world is that people are making these investments successfully and improving their educational outcomes. As a result, that makes it harder to get Americans employed, and certainly harder to get them employed at the levels that they used to be, in terms of their pay.

Second of all, it speaks to the core integration of our society, which has real derivative impact on global security. A country that turns inward is going to play a much different role in a global economy and on key geopolitical issues. A country that looks inward is not going to want to be involved in terms of supporting other countries, getting involved where necessary, and potential military actions, because our domestic problems can start to overwhelm us.

What are the major findings coming out of this report?

Probably the major finding that is sort of well known but not fully digested is that U.S. outcomes are essentially flat at the high school level, despite the fact the country has continued--over the last thirty to forty years--to invest significantly in K-12 public education. And while we’re making the investments and not getting the results, the rest of the globe is getting very different results.

If you [compare] the educational performance of the United States, for example, with that of China, or Finland, or Singapore, there are dramatic differences. The U.S. performance is much more akin to countries that we never could have thought would perform educationally at the level that we are. We used to have the highest percentage of high school graduates, the highest percentage of college graduates. It’s no longer so.

But perhaps the thing the report will shine a spotlight on is the national security implication. One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable. We’re drawing our national security forces from a very small segment of the population. And a lot of the problem is they simply don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to serve in the military.

The other thing we found is how non-innovative K-12 education is. K-12 education is still one teacher, twenty-eight kids, twenty-five kids, whatever, and trying to figure out the sweet spot for a class of very different and heterogeneous skills. Surely, you would think in an [education] industry that is as complex and dynamic and heavily invested in--second after health care in the United States--that you’d see dramatic innovations, and the truth is, you haven’t.

What are the big recommendations?

Education has historically been a state issue in America--that’s the way it was designed in the Constitution--but the truth is that the challenges are now national for our country. The kids in Iowa don’t compete with kids in Indiana; they compete with kids all over the globe. And so, looking at what it means to be well educated and to meet meaningful, rigorous standards that can be tested in the ways that test the skills that we want, is going to require a collaborative national effort.

Given the history and constitutional dimensions, the report highlights that Common Core standards, which now forty-five states have adopted, are a way to respect traditions but also get the country on a single, rigorous page.

You would think in an [education] industry that is as complex and dynamic and heavily invested in--second after health care in the United States--that you’d see dramatic innovations, and the truth is, you haven’t.

The second big idea is really a uniquely American approach, and it’s controversial. That is, to move toward meaningful [school] choice. We need to generate an environment that leads to innovation, and that empowers parents to really look over the next decade or so. We need to look at how we can transition from a monopoly on public school systems to one that gives parents and their children meaningful choices that stimulate innovation and differentiation.

The third idea in the report is a national security readiness audit to see what the ongoing security implications are, in terms of addressing, for example, the fact that three-quarters of our kids are not even eligible to serve in the military. So the third is really a transparency mechanism.

On school choice, at least one member of the Task Force mentioned that there seems to be a lack of public consensus about its advantages.

The reason to support choice has two dimensions. [The] first is pretty common sense: every member of the Council on Foreign Relations has insisted on choices for his or her kid. In other words, those of us who are more fortunate would never simply say, "Well, I’ll take the neighborhood school, good, bad, or indifferent, and I’ll hope they’ll improve it." Right? If we like the neighborhood school, sure; if we don’t like the neighborhood school, we find another school.

So I’m always skeptical when people say choice doesn’t work, because choice is what’s insisted on by those people who have the greatest opportunity and advantages. And what I saw over the years in New York City is that when you give people meaningful choice, like we did in Harlem--where there are now twenty-five different charter schools--parents engage the process in an entirely different way, and you start to see the kind of innovation and differentiation that I was talking about before.

Another central issue is the education system’s ability to attract and retain top-flight teachers. How does the report address this issue?

You address it in two ways. One, choice makes you attract high-quality teaching. Second, we’ve got to understand that until we professionalize teaching, we’re not going to succeed. A system that’s driven by length of service and college or post-college credits, but not driven by merit, simply doesn’t attract the kind of talent that you want to see.

If you look at Singapore or Finland, which are two very high-performing countries, there’s a very rigorous screening process of who goes into teaching and who stays. America hasn’t done that in a long time. The key is to professionalize it, reward excellence, make sure that people are constantly improving and that people who don’t perform well are helped. But if they continue to underperform, then make sure they’re replaced. Any system of choice will force you to try that.

Could you talk a bit more about the national security readiness audit?

The idea is to select educational criteria related to some of these key national security interests (i.e. foreign languages) and assess how well schools are performing in these areas and publish the data so that parents and others can hold them accountable. The theory is to try to follow up and continue to bring scrutiny and transparency to the process.

What are the roles at the federal, state, and local levels, and does this build on the president’s Race to the Top initiative?

At the local level, that’s where you can stimulate choice. At the state level, that’s where it’s easy to support choice and meaningful national standards on a volunteer basis. And then at the federal level, you can incentivize, like President Obama has done; you can create incentives to stimulate a race to the top, to stimulate greater choice.

Right now, we spend a lot of federal money on education that goes out the door automatically, rather than it being tied to rewarding excellence, making sure there are meaningful evaluation systems, stimulating choice through charter schools, and the like. There’s a role for the federal government to stimulate and incentivize policies, and that can be a very powerful role.

Can you talk about the relationship between K-12 and U.S. higher education, which is typically recognized as an area in which the United States has a comparative advantage?

It’s a perfect question which makes two critical points: One, contrary to the K-12 system, the post-secondary system--our colleges and universities--has always been competitive. There’s always been choice, and they’ve always had to compete for their kids. And that has set a very different framework. That’s why people all over the world still want to come to the great universities in America. That’s why we built remarkable state university systems in many of our states, like California, Michigan, and elsewhere, and that’s a big part of what this post-secondary school success has been about.

Having said that, we have to be prepared to look at the economics of it. My greatest concern here, and the report doesn’t touch on this, is that more and more of our top schools, our most competitive schools, are drawing kids from the top third of the economic spectrum. And the kids who are growing up on the bottom quarter are more and more unable to get into the best schools. It’s a combination of the fact that they’re coming to college underprepared, but also the price point and the whole economics that are changing. But the best model for why a meaningful and competitive system with differentiation and true robustness could help K-12 is our model of post-secondary schools.