March 4, 2012

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 “ a snob ” 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.

My question: Do candidates support the push for Common Core Standards (as Obama does)? Although adoption is ultimately a state decision, how would the next president speed implementation so we don’t lose another decade without the rigor our competitors insist on for their children?

2. Professionalize teaching. There is almost universal consensus that effective teaching is the most powerful way to improve student performance. But we’re not serious as a nation about making teaching an attractive career. Finland, Singapore and South Korea recruit 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of high school and college students. Their teachers train in prestigious institutions that accept only one of every seven or eight applicants. By contrast, only 23 percent of new U.S. teachers come from the top third (14 percent for high-poverty schools). Our teachers are trained mostly in open-enrollment institutions seen as second-rate; poor pay and working conditions compel the best to leave the classroom within a few years. A trade union mentality makes it hard to reward excellence and promote accountability.

My question: How do candidates propose to professionalize teaching and make it the career of choice for our most talented young people?

3. Promote choice and innovation. Whether a public school performs well or badly, it basically keeps students in that neighborhood, because most families have no other choice. This monopoly leaves no incentive to innovate to improve performance and efficiency — inducements as vital to public schools as they are elsewhere. Families with more means can choose private schools, can move to another town or can otherwise navigate the system. Those families who are least powerful, however, remain trapped. To support choice and innovation, we need to provide real funding equity and ensure that money follows children, not schools. Child-centered funding would give entrepreneurial educators the ability to reimagine how teachers and students do their work, and to compete to serve families with breakthrough pedagogical tools that creatively tap new learning technologies.

My question: How will candidates promote choice and innovation to improve teaching and learning, and unleash the power of technologies that have raised quality and lowered costs in every other part of the economy?

There is still time for a real debate on improving our schools. The stakes are too high to let platitudes substitute for the call to action our educational system needs.