U.S. public schools seen as threat to national security

The Council on Foreign Relations, described by the Wall Street Journal as “the clubhouse of America’s establishment” is now in favor of something very un-establishment: school choice. The data is so grim, writes the Journal, that the poor performance of American public schools is now a national security issue.

Some statistics from the article: “Only a third of elementary and middle-school students are competent in reading, math and science.” … “The military can’t tap the 25% of American kids who drop out of high school, and 30% of those who graduate can’t pass the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery.” … “Even excluding teacher pensions and other benefits, per-pupil spending today is more than three times what it was in 1960 (in 2008 dollars).” (School Reform’s Establishment Turn: The Council on Foreign Relations endorses choice and competition. subscription required)

The CFR reports calls for applying to education the same factors that have lead to success in other areas of human endeavor: “U.S. elementary and secondary schools are not organized to promote competition, choice, and innovation — the factors that catalyze success in other U.S. sectors.”

The CFR report is U.S. Education Reform and National Security. The overview is blunt: “The United States’ failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role.”

In an interview with Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and co-chair of the task force that wrote the report, Klein said:

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.

The report recommends adopting Common Core Standards, which is controversial.

A second recommendation, and one not present in Kansas to any degree, is school choice: “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.”


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