Joel Klein is chief executive of News Corp.’s education division. From 2002 to 2010 he was chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the largest public school system in the United States.
Until former senator Rick Santorum called President Obama “
” last month for wanting all Americans to attend college, education had been practically invisible in this presidential campaign.
Only 1 percent
of the time and questions in Republican debates have touched on schools since an education forum I co-moderated in New York in October.
This is crazy. Does any parent or CEO in America think education is 1 percent of the agenda in an age of global competition? Unless voters insist that candidates give education the attention it deserves, this will be another political season in which both sides offer pablum without seeking a mandate for the ambitious reforms our schools require.
New research shows that only one-quarter of America’s 52 million K-12 students perform on par with the average performance of the world’s five best school systems — which are now in Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Taiwan and South Korea. Even worse is U.S. performance in advanced achievement in math and science, the best predictor of the engineering and scientific prowess that will drive future growth. Sixteen countries produce at least twice the percentage of advanced math students we do, according to research from Harvard and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States spends more on schools than most wealthy nations as a share of GDP yet ranks in the middle to the bottom of the pack on international comparisons. McKinsey estimates that the cost of this achievement gap vs. other nations is up to $2 trillion a year — the equivalent of a permanent national recession.
The conventional wisdom holds that education “doesn’t work” as a central issue in presidential campaigns. What little talk there is on schools aims to shore up union support (among Democrats) and demonstrate “compassion” to independent voters or anti-federal credentials (among Republicans). Meanwhile, the countries out-educating us view education as central to their success. When the future of our economy and society turn on our ability to dramatically upgrade the skills of all our children, how can we view it as anything less?
Americans must demand from candidates concrete ideas on how to prepare our children to thrive in a global age. A serious debate would compel all seeking the White House to explain how they would do three big things:
1. Accelerate common standards. Most of our industrial competitors have rigorous national standards in education. The United States has a patchwork of largely inadequate standards whose expectations for student learning vary wildly depending on whether children live in Albany or Albuquerque. (This because, the joke goes, the right hates “national” and the left hates “standards.”) The accountability regime set up by No Child Left Behind likewise left the design of standards to the states. The result has been what many consider a “race to the bottom,” as states eased requirements to create the illusion of progress. State leaders have recently forged a consensus on a path to Common Core Standards in English language arts and mathematics.