Tuesday, October 02, 2007


In the knowledge economy, what you know is more important than where you live. So how do we keep our edge? First, by giving every student a quality education from the start. Four years ago we launched the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act. It promised higher classroom standards, more choices for parents and greater flexibility for states. Above all, it demanded accountability for results.

Our schools are delivering. Fourth- and eighth-grade math scores have risen to record highs, according to the "Nation's Report Card." Young African-American and Hispanic students have dramatically narrowed the "achievement gap." And among all 9-year-olds, more reading progress was made in the past five years than in the previous three decades. We're keeping our promise. Among older students, however, the world threatens to leave us behind.

The evidence is mounting and troubling. The United States has fallen to ninth in the world in high-school graduation rates among 25- to 34-year-olds. Studies show that less than half of those who do graduate are ready for college-level math and science. "The scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength," reports the respected National Academy of Sciences.

Thomas L. Friedman, author of "The World Is Flat," argues that other nations have learned to take advantage of innovations the United States pioneered. Sadly, in many respects, our education system has not taken advantage.

This is especially true of high schools, which Bill Gates calls "obsolete." Twelfth-grade exit exams usually measure ninth-and 10th-grade skills, leading colleges and employers to discount the results. Fewer than half the states require at least three years of math and science to graduate. Only one in five graduates in the work force says he or she was adequately challenged by coursework. It's no wonder high-school test scores have barely budged since the 1970s—or that states spend $220 million a year on remedial writing for public employees.

Our high schools deserve reform. The president and I want to provide states with the resources to measure student knowledge in core subjects annually, and to offer intensive reading instruction to students who badly need it. A high school diploma must be a ticket to success in college and the work force, which are increasingly connected in the knowledge economy. About 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs will require some postsecondary education.

But at a time when we need to take higher education more seriously, much of the media and culture treat it as a lark. While helping my daughter prepare for her freshman year, I found plenty of guides on the best party schools and "Schools That Rock," but none on, say, the highest earnings after graduation.

Parents and students need better information—and so do policymakers. I have formed the Commission on the Future of Higher Education to address the vital issues of access, affordability, accountability and quality. Too often, families assume that they are priced out of the college market. And too often, policymakers assume that students are being equipped with the critical thinking skills needed to prosper in the knowledge economy. We must replace assumptions with data.

Preparing for the future is a moral and economic imperative. Last year China's schools graduated more than 600,000 engineers and India's schools produced 350,000, compared with 70,000 in America. Do the math: their top 10 percent outnumbers all of America's. Many firms may agree with Intel chairman Craig R. Barrett: "If the world's best engineers are produced in India or Singapore, that is where our companies will go."

Thanks to our schools, the 20th century was known as the American century. The 21st century is still up for grabs. We know what works—higher expectations, more choices and better data. It's time to make education in America a picture of reform.

Spellings, Margaret - Let’s Get Serious, in «Issues 2006», Nova Iorque: Newsweek, 2005, p 99.

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