Nearly 30 years after the landmark education report “A Nation at Risk,” a new report finds that America’s failure to prepare its young people for a globalized world is now so grave that it poses a national security threat.
Some of the key factors that the report cites in linking education shortcomings and a weakened national security: insufficient preparation of children for the highly technical jobs that both the private sector and the military increasingly need to fill, scant and declining foreign-language education, and a weakened “national cohesiveness” as a result of an under-educated and unemployable poor population.
“Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk,” says the report, the result of an independent task force cochaired by former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.
Noting that the “dominant power of the 21st century will depend on human capital,” the report concludes that “the failure to produce that capital will undermine American security.”
Ms. Rice on Tuesday zeroed in on signs of faltering national cohesion as at the “heart” of the vast and complex issues addressed in the report.
Education is “the glue that keeps us together,” she said at an event in Washington Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, which sponsored the task force. A factor weakening that glue, she said, is the “perception of a smaller and smaller group that is advancing in America.” She added, “If we are not one nation, we cannot defend one nation.”
The report cites a series of indicators of America’s educational weaknesses – from US students’ disappointing placement on international rankings of math and science competencies, to recent reports out of the Defense Department that three-fourths of young Americans are not qualified to join the armed forces (although physical conditions such as obesity, and not just educational shortcomings, play a role in that number).
The US is not producing enough foreign-language speakers to fill key positions in the Foreign Service, in intelligence agencies, and in America’s increasingly global companies.
And yet, Rice said, “We are the most monolingual major society on Earth.”
To reverse the nation’s education slide, the task force offers a number of recommendations, one of which is a longer school day and a longer school year. “We have the shortest learning day and the shortest learning year practically of all [countries] in the industrialized world,” Rice said.
The task force’s three main recommendations:
• Putting more emphasis on children learning science, technology, and foreign languages, in addition to reading and math.
• Preparation by the states, in conjunction with the federal government, of what the report calls a “national security readiness audit.” This would measure how schools are doing at teaching “the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard America’s future security and prosperity.”
• Increasing school choice and competition, namely by charter schools and vouchers – within an environment of “equitable resource allocation.”
Not all the task force’s members signed on to all the report’s recommendations, with several members offering “dissenting” views at the end of the report.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised Rice for putting an emphasis on “public education” at the Tuesday event. But as a dissenting member of the task force, she finds that the final report does too little to recognize public education’s role in America.
“Public education has been a cornerstone of democracy and a means of acculturation for generations of Americans,” she writes in her dissenting comment. Referring to calls for US education to be more open to privatization, “A move away from that public system could do greater harm to our national security and common bonds than doing nothing at all.”
Another dissenting member, Harvard national security expert Stephen Walt, says the report “exaggerates the national security rationale for reforming US K-12 education.” No country is likely to match America’s overall military power and technological supremacy for decades, he says.
“There are good reasons to improve K-12 education,” Mr. Walt writes in his dissent, “but an imminent threat to our national security is not high among them.”
He also describes a “mismatch” between the report’s claims and its remedies, saying that if the threat was really “very grave,” emphatic support for more resources would be in order. But, he says, the report only offers “the very bland statement” that increased resources “may well be justifiable.”
The task force co-chairs agree that more money may need to be spent on education – especially if schools are asked to meet certain standards in more subjects, or if school days are extended – but they also emphasize their view that money is not the answer.
Spending on K-12 education tripled from 1960 to 2010, while results declined, says Mr. Klein, now an education specialist at News Corp.
Meeting the educational challenges outlined in the report “is going to cost money,” Rice said. “We just have to make sure that the money spent is well spent.”