By Scott Wilson
President Obama warned Saturday that a faltering U.S. education system is putting the country at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy, saying, "Few issues speak more directly to our long-term success as a nation."
In his weekly radio and Internet address, Obama noted a recent headline that he said had been overlooked by much of the nation but "ought to be a source of concern for every American." It read: "Many Nations Passing U.S. in Education."
Specifically, he said, "we've now fallen behind most wealthy countries in our high school graduation rates. And while we once led the world in the proportion of college graduates we produced, today we no longer do."
As he has with other issues, Obama placed much of the blame for the system's condition on Washington's political culture, which he has said favors short-term decisions, tailored to winning the next election, over difficult ones designed to solve long-term problems.
"Too often we have failed to make inroads in reforming and strengthening our public education system -- the debate mired in worn arguments hurled across entrenched divides," he said. "As a result, over the last few decades, we've lost ground."
Obama highlighted his administration's efforts to improve the education system, including a federal grant program known as "Race to the Top" for states that carry out certain reforms, including holding teachers more accountable for student performance.
He said his administration will send Congress on Monday his proposal to "update" the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He said it represents an "overhaul" of President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program.
"What this plan recognizes is that, while the federal government can play a leading role in encouraging the reforms and high standards we need, the impetus for that change will come from states, and from local schools and school districts," he said. "So, yes, we set a high bar -- but we also provide educators the flexibility to reach it."
Obama said the goal of the proposal is for all students to "graduate from high school prepared for college and a career -- no matter who you are or where you come from."
"Achieving this goal will be difficult. It will take time. And it will require the skills, talents and dedication of many: principals, teachers, parents, students," Obama said. "But this effort is essential for our children and for our country. And while there will always be those cynics who claim it can't be done, at our best, we know that America has always risen to the challenges that we've faced. This challenge is no different."